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Improving Nature's Top Recyclers

Soulskill posted more than 3 years ago | from the i-bet-they're-twice-as-productive-in-michigan dept.

Biotech 41

aarondubrow sends in this snippet from an article at the Texas Advanced Computing Center: "Over billions of years, fungi and bacteria have evolved enzymes to convert abundant cellulosic plant matter into sugars to use as energy sources to sustain life. It's a great trick, but unfortunately, these enzymes don't work fast enough...yet. So computational scientists at NREL, in collaboration with a large experimental enzyme engineering group, set about trying to understand and design enhanced enzymes to ... lower the cost of biomass-derived fuel to serve the global population (abstract)."

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Oh, sure ... (2)

gstoddart (321705) | more than 3 years ago | (#35457016)

I can see it now ... Scientists engineer super-enzyme which wipes out all plant matter upon escape, wiping out all plant life. ;-)

I'm sure it's a highly unlikely scenario, but I hope this isn't something which has some really bad unintended consequences.

Re:Oh, sure ... (1)

lwsimon (724555) | more than 3 years ago | (#35457160)

Um.. enzymes are just proteins, they don't reproduce. There is no more danger of that occurring than there is of my spilling a vial of muriatic acid and it dissolving the whole Earth.

Re:Oh, sure ... (1)

Psychotria (953670) | more than 3 years ago | (#35457192)

Um.. enzymes are just proteins, they don't reproduce. There is no more danger of that occurring than there is of my spilling a vial of muriatic acid and it dissolving the whole Earth.

I guess that would depend on how big the vial of HCl was that you spill...

Re:Oh, sure ... (1)

The Grim Reefer2 (1195989) | more than 3 years ago | (#35457316)

Um.. enzymes are just proteins, they don't reproduce. There is no more danger of that occurring than there is of my spilling a vial of muriatic acid and it dissolving the whole Earth.

I would guess it would depend on how they will produce the enzyme(s). If it's going to be created in a lab, then there's probably not much to worry about (at least in regards to it "escaping"). If they are going to engineer a fungus, bacteria, or some other life form to produce it then it has the potential to be a little more problematic if it makes it into the wild. But that's just crazy talk. We humans have an impeccable track record in regards to keeping things like this contained. What could possibly go wrong? ;-)

Re:Oh, sure ... (1)

RockDoctor (15477) | more than 3 years ago | (#35463716)

But that's just crazy talk. We humans have an impeccable track record in regards to keeping things like this contained. What could possibly go wrong? ;-)

Your cynicism is reasonably well-founded.

I would guess it would depend on how they will produce the enzyme(s). If it's going to be created in a lab, then there's probably not much to worry about (at least in regards to it "escaping"). If they are going to engineer a fungus, bacteria, or some other life form to produce it then it has the potential to be a little more problematic if it makes it into the wild.

Yeees, it would have that potential, if you didn't engineer in appropriate restrictions. Such as, designing the system so that it requires available tri-valent molybdenum, in an oxygen-free environment, and temperatures of 45-55degC. Which would make it very difficult for the system to exist without active maintenance.

Additionally, "cellulose" covers a wide range of compounds. So you might engineer the system to require sequential anaerobic processing by one set of bugs (to change the cellulose to one more-standardised feedstock), followed by aerobic processing with different bugs, under different conditions, to yield your fuel.

Your concerns are certainly not groundless, but they are engineerable-out. For example, the death toll on the roads could be massively reduced by making it a capital offence to design or manufacture parts for an IC engine with a power/weight ratio greater than 10 horsepower/tonne. But such an engineering solution might encounter social push-back. Which is where it needs concerned people (I think you volunteered earlier, when you posted) to get involved in the process.

Re:Oh, sure ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35457322)

The bacteria/yeast that they are transforming to make these enzymes do.

Re:Oh, sure ... (1)

RicktheBrick (588466) | more than 3 years ago | (#35458400)

According to this article http://cleantechnica.com/2011/03/08/u-s-department-of-energy-announces-new-biofuel-to-replace-gasoline/ [cleantechnica.com] the Bioenergy science center has already produced a microbe to efficiently produce a fuel. With the cost of oil now around $100 a barrel, I would think that there would be a great demand for this technology. I would assume that it is better to use our money to produce the oil and jobs locally rather than paying questionable sources in the middle east.

Re:Oh, sure ... (1)

JesseMcDonald (536341) | more than 3 years ago | (#35457456)

Except that, unlike acids, enzymes are catalysts—they aren't used up in the reaction. Ergo, the enzymes can ideally continue turning plants into sugar so long as the enzymes and plants remain in contact. The only real limits (apart from source materials) are contamination, dispersion, and chemical breakdown.

Moreover, these enzymes aren't being used by themselves; they're produced inside fungi and bacteria. If these hosts should happen to escape, there is at least the possibility that they could multiply in the wild, producing and using the enhanced enzymes for the benefit of their own population at the expense of existing plant life. It's unlikely, though, as genetically-engineered organisms modified to be more useful to humans tend to be less fit than their "natural" relatives at survival outside the lab.

Re:Oh, sure ... (1)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | more than 3 years ago | (#35458080)

Luckily, should an outbreak of super-digester bacteria occur, we can simply dust it with Ice-9, which should stop it in its tracks.

Re:Oh, sure ... (1)

Thing 1 (178996) | more than 3 years ago | (#35464380)

Yeah just don't listen to Bokonon, then you'll end up destroying the world. (Well, your world.)

Re:Oh, sure ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35458384)

Um.. enzymes are just proteins, they don't reproduce.

Tell that to prions! (You know, "Mad Cow Disease"?)

Re:Oh, sure ... (1)

lwsimon (724555) | more than 3 years ago | (#35460282)

I'm quite familiar with CJD, and its relative in the US whitetail deer population.

Prions don't reproduce either - they just don't go away. Like enzymes :)

Re:Oh, sure ... (1)

Gibbs-Duhem (1058152) | more than 3 years ago | (#35457292)

Oh, we'll just engineer them to require lysine to reproduce. We'll control the supply, so if they get out of control they'll gradually die off.

Easy peasy!

Re:Oh, sure ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35467232)

this seems like a likely scenario for another hollywood movie.

Fallout (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35457028)

This zero potential for horrendous side effects...

Texas? (-1, Troll)

lcba (175394) | more than 3 years ago | (#35457084)

I thought the speciality of the Texas Universities was Creationism.

Re:Texas? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35457134)

I thought the speciality of the Texas Universities was Creationism.

Well ... they are creating something, right?

Re:Texas? (2)

maxume (22995) | more than 3 years ago | (#35457178)

And east coast universities specialize in tanning, while west coast universities specialize in bong rips (not that other universities aren't competitive there, more that they just don't get the same level of funding as universities in California).

Re:Texas? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35457820)

Mod this up please.

Re:Texas? (1)

bertoelcon (1557907) | more than 3 years ago | (#35457186)

I thought the speciality of the Texas Universities was Creationism.

No, you're thinking of the high schools.

Re:Texas? (2)

gstrickler (920733) | more than 3 years ago | (#35457244)

No, you're thinking of the textbook review board of the Texas Board of Education, which has nothing to do with universities in Texas. They only set the standards for the free textbooks in public schools K-12.

Don't worry, it's Intellectually Designed! (1)

Cyberax (705495) | more than 3 years ago | (#35457444)

Don't worry, this protein will be Intellectually Designed.

What does Creationism (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35457572)

I thought the speciality of the Texas Universities was Creationism.

have to do with chemical engineering? Creationist = ! complete lack of knowledge.

These enzymes don't work fast enough (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35457142)

The fungi and bacteria beg to differ.

disarming nature's worst enemies, jut think (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35457352)

they're leaving anyway, why continue all this pretending until we have nothing (even babys) left at all? scared? see you there anyway? that's the spirit?

.

Is it just me? (1)

Frequency Domain (601421) | more than 3 years ago | (#35457404)

Or does anybody else see a potential problem with accelerating the rate at which bacteria and fungi can convert biomass into puddles of sugary goo? My house is biomass, my clothes are biomass, my family and I are biomass... It's already hard enough to kill unwanted fungi, ask anybody who has had athlete's foot. If it were aggressive and fast, think what a nightmare you could have.

Re:Is it just me? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35457654)

Athlete's foot is easy to cure. I just peed on my feet in the shower for a couple of days in a row and it was gone in less than a week.

My ex-girlfriend had a case of it and she used a Qtip dipped in bleach and applied it to her toes every morning before a shower. Worked well for her too.

Nathan

Re:Is it just me? (1)

jd (1658) | more than 3 years ago | (#35460088)

The bacteria you should worry about are the ones that consume metal. Accelerating those could do some really nasty things. (They're already doing nasty things in Britain [mmu.ac.uk] .)

(Such bacteria could be quite interesting in mining metals that are hard to extract in their normal ore form. Convert the metal from a hard-to-extract form to an easy-to-extract form. So long as you could keep them where they should be.)

No need for this (0)

kryliss (72493) | more than 3 years ago | (#35457416)

There's no need for this. If the government would remove the ban on industrial hemp we would have all the fuel we could ever need.

Byllshit bingo and then some simulation (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35457430)

I'm going to fire a full salvo here, as an industrial chemist acutely involved in this area of research.

>abundant cellulosic plant matter

Oh yeah. I can't not remember a 30-year-old book I read that the most pressing problem in converting biomass into fuel is not processing, but the lack of availability of cheap biomass. The price of oil has to go up significantly and remain at that price for years in order for biomass to become competetive. The situation has not changed.

>into sugars

Converting cellulose into sugars makes little sense by enzymatic processes given that land suitable for growing trees is rather efficiently maintained for timber and pulp production. Real "arable land" suitable for food production is used for that already. In both cases, the key word is "added value": timber, pulp and food are all higher value than energy.

>these enzymes don't work fast enough

And what about elementary reaction kinetics, transport processes and these things called physical absolutes? As we nicely see from the simulation, the enzyme does not attack the very crystallinity of cellulose directly. Cellulose has hard crystalline domains that have an intermolecular hydrogen-bonded structure not unlike that of kevlar. I can't see how this research shows practical ways to overcome this in a energetically feasible way. Nor does the bacteria do anything lignin, which would be analogous to the human attack on lignin: pump the mix full of base (lye) and nucleophiles (sulfide). Lignin forms a rather hard-to-deal with network of giant polymer, if you don't destroy it. Rather, the enzyme seems to "peel off" a cellulose strand at a time, which is necessarily slow. Furthermore, bacteria-based processes generally work at slow speed at high dilutions in water, which is not generally cost-wise acceptable in the energy or even bulk chemicals business. I've seen processes thrown out, out of hand, for this very reason.

Another underappreciated fact in this business is that even trivial-sounding operations are expensive in relation to the added value of the whole process. A dollar a kilogram here or there isn't that much of problem in fine chemicals, but cents a kilogram can make or break an energy-producing process. In this case, I am very concerned of the pretreatments suggested. It's no secret how to degrade biomass into a more processable form - we've seen rather good technologies for years and decades already - but the dealbreaker is whether it's actually profitable, not if it's simply technologically feasible.

Top recyclers (1)

DNS-and-BIND (461968) | more than 3 years ago | (#35457534)

The smart people say that socialist economies are the worst - where recycling exists, this is entirely untrue! Due to the poverty, recycling is a very profitable enterprise. China has one of the world's best recycling rates, and the reason is due to the huge number of people who recycle.

Unfortunately, Chinese don't recycle because of belief in socialism, they recycle because of the profit motive. :( Ideally, belief in cooperative management of allocation of resources would be the motivation. It is not. Chinese people selfishly recycle because they can profit from it. Recyclers do not benefit from nationalization of the means of production, they benefit directly from how much work they put in towards their own personal goals. It is a pity that such capitalist (*spit*) motivations can result in such positive (environmentalist) outcomes. *mourn*

Re:Top recyclers (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35457794)

Are you serious?

Re:Top recyclers (1)

benjamindees (441808) | more than 3 years ago | (#35460458)

Chinese don't recycle because of belief in socialism, they recycle because of the profit motive.

Sort of. The Chinese belief in socialism led directly to overpopulation, which led to resource depletion, which led to belief in capitalism and population controls.

So, compared with 100 years ago, Chinese today aren't really "profiting" by having to recycle other people's trash. They're just un-fucking their economy from decades of mismanagement.

It's like someone punching you in the face and then saying you're 'profiting' from reconstructive surgery.

natures top recyclers (1)

OglinTatas (710589) | more than 3 years ago | (#35457762)

Not completely off topic, I saw the headline and was immediately reminded that I sure wish there were a supply of dung beetles for temperate zones in the U.S. That way I wouldn't need to clean up all the dog poop in the back yard every week.

You can buy ladybugs and mantids through the mail, why not dung beetles?

I suspect though that they may not like dog poop any more than I do, and will fly off to the local zoo or nearby farms or hippie vegan communes where herbivores live

The solution (1)

Dishwasha (125561) | more than 3 years ago | (#35457932)

Build an oscillating time machine where the fungus exits out of the start of the feedback loop after it oscillates 1300 times. Just make sure that none of your engineers try to put themselves in the time machine or your stock price may plummet.

Why? (1)

hahn (101816) | more than 3 years ago | (#35458038)

Why do people keep thinking they can "improve" nature without any consequences?

Re:Why? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35458516)

Same reason they don't use birth control.

Re:Why? (2)

extraordinaire (2010224) | more than 3 years ago | (#35458522)

Because pumping oil out of the ground sucks really bad.

Re:Why? (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35460698)

We improve nature, for ourselves. Because we have, since before the beginning of civilization. Ever heard of domesticated plants and animals?

Devastating consequences only happen when people guess about their situation badly, fail to find a better way of doing something and ultimately keep repeating the same action until something gives. Although mistakes have consequences, there's no way to avoid them by doing nothing. Time eventually collides with everything that tries to stand still.

So, people that make bad decisions fail. Nature remains.

Re:Why? (1)

ChromeAeonium (1026952) | more than 3 years ago | (#35461192)

How's that teosinte working out for you? Good and tasty? I'll bet. Good thing no one messed with nature there. The consequences would never be the same!

All the effort...for what? (1)

MetalliQaZ (539913) | more than 3 years ago | (#35458052)

I've always seen Cellulosic ethanol and whatnot as a kind of cold fusion project. Beyond the difficulty of the process, why do we even need a new way of converting plant matter to this or that? We already have an awesome way to extract something useful from cellulose: fire. We can burn it no problem, and we have been developing the means to extract energy from that burning for the past several thousand years. It doesn't release extra CO2 into the atmosphere, because the trees have already extracted it. Burning just completes the cycle. (Oil and coal are different because that carbon is currently locked away, not part of the ecosystem)

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