The Bacteria That Causes Food Poisoning Could Help Fight Climate Change

There are two fronts in the war on climate change. The first is reducing the amount of carbon dioxide (C02) we add to the atmosphere. The second is removing the C02 we’ve pumped into the atmosphere which has caused the Earth’s temperature to rise 2° Fahrenheit over the past century.

Most of the world is currently attacking the first problem, but the only real solution to the second one is to plant trees. Trees remove carbon dioxide from the air by storing it and converting it to oxygen.  

However, to reverse the effects of climate change it’s going
to take an unimaginable number of trees.

“There’s 400 gigatons [of carbon] now, in the 3 trillion trees, and if you were to scale that up by another trillion trees that’s in the order of hundreds of gigatons captured from the atmosphere – at least 10 years of anthropogenic emissions completely wiped out,” Thomas Crowther, a professor and scientific advisor to the UN, said to The Independent.

Research published in the November 27 issue of Cell shows that scientists have discovered how to engineer bacteria to eat C02.

Scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel spent ten years weaning Escherichia coli bacteria (commonly known as E. coli) off its usual diet of sugars and fats and trained it to eat C02 instead.

E. coli is an intestinal bacterium found throughout the
animal kingdom and although most strains are harmless, some can cause food
poisoning, pneumonia, and urinary tract infections.

Over the decade, the researchers used genetic engineering to change the bacteria’s diet of organic compounds to one that transforms C02 into organic carbon.

“From a basic scientific perspective, we wanted to see if such a major transformation in the diet of bacteria – from dependence on sugar to the synthesis of all their biomass from CO2 – is possible,” Shmuel Gleizer, a Weizmann Institute of Science postdoctoral fellow, said to The Independent.

The scientists achieved their goal by starving the bacteria of sugar while introducing it to formate, a potential generator of clean energy, and C02. They did so over several generations until the bacteria mutated to survive on C02.

It was the first successful attempt to transform an organism that lives on organic material to one that survives on gas.

This new, C02-consuming E. coli is a fantastic scientific advancement that has three practical implications: it can help create more sustainable sources of fuel and food and, potentially, pull C02 from the air to reduce the effects of global warming caused by carbon dioxide emissions.

“Converting the carbon source of E. Coli,  the workhorse of biotechnology, from organic carbon into CO2 is a major step towards establishing such a platform,” Ron Milo, a systems biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, said to SciTech Daily.

“It can also serve as a platform to better understand and
improve the molecular machines that are the basis of food production for
humanity and thus help in the future to increase yields in agriculture.”

The one major drawback of the breakthrough is that the genetically engineered E. coli is releasing more C02 than it consumes. The researchers help to reduce C02 release over future generations of evolution by the bacteria.

Going forward, the researchers will look to see if their project is scalable for widespread, industrial applications. But they see their current progress as a stepping stone towards producing more sustainable food and fuel, while reducing C02 in the atmosphere.

Photo credits: FLICKR.COM, NIAID, Claudia Totir/Getty Images, Pixabay.

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