Thomas P. Howard, et. al., over at the University of Exeter, have produced something truly remarkable. They have engineered a strain of E-Coli that will produce diesel fuel as a byproduct of its lifecycle. Synthesis of customized petroleum-replica fuel molecules by targeted modification of free fatty acid pools in Escherichia coli
The nut of what they achieved is stated here in the Conclusions :
We have engineered in E. coli pathways for the production of speciﬁed, aliphatic n- and iso-alkanes and -alkenes of various chain lengths that are exact replicas of petroleum-based molecules used in retail fuels.
This is however only a lab scale venture. It has many hurdles to become commercialized on an industrial scale, and it is not yet known if it would be cost effective to do so. This is pointed out by the researchers on page five.
The size of the challenge facing advanced biofuels can be appreciated when considering the effort necessary to progress the engineered biosynthesis of semisynthetic artemisinin from the laboratory to commercial production: many changes beyond manipulating the endogenous mevalonate pathway have been required, including changes to host cell biology, fermentation conditions, and extraction procedures (34, 35). The application of engineering, life-cycle, and economic costing analysis for scale-up procedures combined with the exploitation of alternative, nonfood carbon sources to break the link between food and fuel prices (17–19, 36–39) and new approaches to engineering metabolism [exempliﬁed by the development of dynamic sensor-regulator systems for FAderived products (40), the remarkable reversal of the β-oxidation cycle (41), and introduction of molecular scaffolds for improving metabolic efﬁciency (42, 43)] will facilitate this aim.
Still the notion that we can grow drop-in replacement diesel fuel from organic material is very exciting. Ironically that would turn diesel into a renewable resource. If cost effective industrial scale production were possible the result would be the death of the peak oil issue. While it is true most vehicles are currently gasoline, much industrial use is diesel based, and a transition to diesel for consumer vehicles is certainly possible if fossil fuel costs rise due to scarcity.
Of course the science fiction buff in my ponders “What if this escapes from the lab ?” and I have visions of my counter at home being covered in diesel when I neglect to wipe up after handling my raw chicken meat 🙂