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
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.
- The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
- The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
- It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
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