“Transformational” energy grant at UC Davis Chemistry

Engineering E. coli bacteria to turn ethylene into liquid fuel is the aim of a UC Davis project just funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), part of the U.S. Department of Energy.

The project is led by Shota Atsumi, assistant professor of chemistry at UC Davis, along with colleagues Justin Siegel and Michael Toney. The grant is for $1.5 million over three years.

Congressman John Garamendi congratulated the researchers on receiving the grant.

“If this biofuel research is successful, the result will be a cleaner and healthier planet, a more sustainable economy for the United States, and a competitive advantage for energy and agricultural companies throughout Northern California. This is a big win for the Sacramento Valley,” he said in a news release.

Atsumi’s lab specializes in “synthetic biology,” creating new biochemical pathways in living cells. The team takes a biochemical pathway, and breaks it down into a series of steps involving key enzymes. Then they engineer these enzymes back into the bacteria, or other cells, constructing a new pathway. Atsumi is already applying this technique to make fuels from photosynthetic blue-green algae.

Ethylene itself is readily available and widely used to make chemicals and plastics. However, it cannot easily be converted into fuel.

The UC Davis project is one of 33 announced Thursday by ARPA-E. A full list is available here.


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