We know that CO2 in the atmosphere lets sun in, but traps the resulting heat that tries to leave the earth. This warms the planet. As CO2 and other greenhouse gases increase, so does the overall temperature. A warmer planet is not a problem, until the extra heat starts to change other things, eventually making your planet inhospitable to life.
That’s why we should all like new ways to turn CO2 into something useful, like fuel.
Carbon dioxide is a major cause of global warming, but it’s also fundamental to life on Earth. As any good toxicologist knows, “the dose makes the poison.”
And thanks to new research at the University of Georgia, we might soon have an antidote for too much CO2: a manmade version of the microbe Pyrococcus furiosus, or “rushing fireball,” that absorbs CO2 and converts it into fuel. If P. furiosus can work on a large enough scale, it might even help displace carbon-positive fossil fuels like coal and oil.
“Basically, what we have done is create a microorganism that does with carbon dioxide exactly what plants do — absorb it and generate something useful,” says Michael Adams, a member of UGA’s Bioenergy Systems Research Institute and co-author of a new study detailing the magic of P. furiosus. “What this discovery means is that we can remove plants as the middleman. We can take carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and turn it into useful products like fuels and chemicals without having to go through the inefficient process of growing plants and extracting sugars from biomass.”
In photosynthesis, plants use sunlight to turn water and CO2 into energy-packed sugars, forming the base of Earth’s food web. These sugars can also be fermented into biofuels like ethanol, but as Adams points out, removing them from a plant’s cells is relatively inefficient due to the energy input required. P. furiosus, however, may offer a shortcut.
The microbe is a deep-sea “extremophile,” thriving in violent conditions that would obliterate most organisms. It feeds on carbohydrates in super-heated seawater around hydrothermal vents, but by tweaking its genetic material, Adams and his colleagues created a new kind of P. furiosus that likes cooler temperatures and eats CO2.
The researchers then used hydrogen gas to spark a chemical reaction inside the microbe, prompting it to incorporate CO2 into 3-hydroxypropionic acid, a common industrial acid that’s used to make acrylics. With further genetic manipulations, they can also create a P. furiosus variant that produces an array of other useful chemicals, including fuel. And when that biofuel is burned, the researchers note, it releases the same amount of CO2 that was used to create it. That means it’s essentially carbon-neutral, making it a cleaner alternative to fossil-based fuels like coal, crude oil and gasoline.
“This is an important first step that has great promise as an efficient and cost-effective method of producing fuels,” Adams says. “In the future we will refine the process and begin testing it on larger scales.”
More about Pyrococcus furiosus.
Pyrococcus furiosus is an extremophilic species of Archaea. It can be classified as a hyperthermophile because it thrives best under extremely high temperatures—higher than those preferred of a thermophile. It is notable for having an optimum growth temperature of 100 °C, and for being one of the few organisms identified as possessing aldehyde ferredoxin oxidoreductase enzymes containing tungsten, an element rarely found in biological molecules
Is it a bacteria? No.
Image: some types of Archaea
Archaea and bacteria are generally similar in size and shape, although a few archaea have very strange shapes, such as the flat and square-shaped cells of Haloquadratum walsbyi. Despite this morphological similarity to bacteria, archaea possess genes and several metabolic pathways that are more closely related to those of eukaryotes, notably the enzymes involved in transcription and translation. Other aspects of archaeal biochemistry are unique, such as their reliance on ether lipids in their cell membranes, including archaeols. Archaea use more energy sources than eukaryotes: these range from organic compounds, such as sugars, to ammonia, metal ions or even hydrogen gas. Salt-tolerant archaea (the Haloarchaea) use sunlight as an energy source, and other species of archaea fix carbon; however, unlike plants and cyanobacteria, no known species of archaea does both. Archaea reproduce asexually by binary fission, fragmentation, or budding; unlike bacteria and eukaryotes, no known species forms spores.
Bonus Strange Organism: Did you know there was a square microbe that grows in super salty pools all over the world? Haloquadratum walsbyi looks like a tech company logo.
Anyway, here’s hoping the manmade version of the microbe Pyrococcus furiosus helps us recover from over carbonation. Carbon Nation. If that’s not a movie title it should be.
In the year 2017, NASA says we are on the verge of discovering extraterrestrial life. I say alien life forms are all around, and they might even help us clean up our environment. I call archaea aliens because some are extremeophiles and they may have been the original seeds that brought life to earth from comments.
Life on Earth is thought to have originated from the oldest single-cell archaea and bacteria.
Panspermia – The hypothesis that microorganisms may transmit life from outer space to habitable bodies; or the process of such transmission.
It’s just a theory, but there was a time red cells rained down on the earth, apparently from a meteor.
Now we have all these great ideas. Next, we need the political will and organization to vet them, fund them, and then to get the projects rolling as massive multinational earth recovery efforts. I wish cleaning up the earth was a new worldwide sport.
Make it happen if you can.