Will Airplanes Powered By Bacteria Ever Take Off?

This has been a big week for the U.S. domestic airline industry and its embrace of environmentally-friendly biofuels. On Monday, a United Airlines jet completed the first-ever biofuel-powered commercial flight in the U.S. On Wednesday, Alaska Airlines is launching the first of 75 flights powered by a 20% biofuel blend concocted from recycled cooking oil. The problem is that the cost of these biofuels is so prohibitively expensive -- nearly six times the cost of regular jet fuel -– that there are no concrete plans to continue these experiments. But what if there were a way to generate cheap bioefuels for the airline transportation industry via synthetic biology, essentially re-engineering E. coli bacteria so that they become a source of cheap, sustainable fuel?


That’s right, the way to think big is to think small -- very small. Ever since scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute created the first synthetic cell nearly 18 months ago, there’s been tremendous excitement (as well as a fair amount of trepidation) about what the future holds. Humans now have the ability to create synthetic life forms from scratch and re-engineer DNA at the cellular level. Synthetic biology pioneers have outlined plans for these synthetic life forms to change everything from energy to medicine to the environment. Imagine bacteria capable of curing cancerous tumors, doctors capable of "growing" new organs for patients, trees capable of growing artificial leaves and E. coli bacteria capable of transforming sugar into diesel and jet fuel.

Synthetic biology is all about transforming molecular biology problems into engineering and design problems. In the hands of synthetic biologists, DNA is simply a raw material that can be re-engineered and re-designed to do what they tell it to do. As a result, it may soon be commercially viable to produce synthethic biofuels in sufficient enough quantities as to change the economics of the aviation industry. Jay Keasling, one of the leading voices of the synthetic biology movement, has already shown that it is possible to create alternatives to diesel and jet fuel using synthetic biology. At the U.S. Department of Energy, Keasling's approach is to develop "drop-in" fuels that work with the existing infrastructure. In layman's terms, synthetic organisms are capable of creating the same type of jet fuel that airplanes today already use.

As with any alternative energy source, the ultimate viability centers on cost. No matter how amazing a new energy source may appear to be, if it's not competitive with traditional fuel sources in terms of price, it will never become a mainstream alternative. Yet, as Jack Nicas of the Wall Street Journal points out in Frying the Friendly Skies (a great title, BTW), a number of companies and government entities are getting serious about the future of biofuels. Boeing has established an industry-wide 1% biofuels target for the year 2015. The U.S. Navy is investing over $500 million in new biofuel R&D efforts. Seven airlines around the world - including Lufthansa - already have experimented with biofuel-powered commercial flights.

Playing God with nature has its obvious moral and ethical drawbacks. What’s the appropriate trade-off and level of risk we should accept in exchange for saving the environment? Are synthetic fuels worth the risk? There are serious issues involved anytime we start to re-engineer nature. What if some of these "synthetic bugs" get out into the wild? What are the risks of bio-terrorism? While all of experiments thus far have been intended to help mankind – such as new super-smart bacteria that turn colors when they detect air pollution – it is inevitable that the basic instincts of fear and greed have enormous power to sway our opinions about synthetic fuel.

What can we expect for the future? The first U.S. commercial flight of a biofuel-powered airplane has demonstrated the future potential of alternative energy sources for the aviation industry. At the same time, biologists are working to create synthetic biofuels that are significantly cheaper than anything on the market today. If airlines could use cheap, synthetic biofuels, would they? With the aviation industry accounting for an estimated 2% of the world's carbon emissions, finding a way for airplanes to use low-cost biofuels created from scratch in laboratories around the nation may be a way to make our skies a little bit friendlier.

Aircraft Maintenance People During Refueling / Shutterstock

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.