Bacteria buried deep in sediment off the coat of Peru are turning organic waste into propane, according to a study sponsored by the International Ocean Drilling Program.
Kai-Uwe Hinrichs of the University of Bremen and John Hayes of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution were studying 40 million year old sediment samples and noticed that the gas content was unexpectedly high. Further study revealed that microbes dissolve organic matter into acetate. The acetate is then fixed to hydrogen by another microbe to produce ethane. A third reaction then turns it into propane, which comes out of your gas grill.
It is unclear what the ultimate impact of the discovery will be, but it adds to the increasing interest in microbes. Several start-ups and university research labs are tinkering with ways to harness the metabolic cycles of single-celled animals to produce hydrogen or ethanol, keep the ground clean around nuclear power plants or industrial materials. Put another way, many believe there's money to be made when microbes go to the bathroom.
In the emerging field of synthetic biology, professors such as UC Berkley's Jay Keasling are looking at ways of grafting genetic strands from different microbes to serve as a chemical factory.