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Fake petroleum on tap at industrial microbe conference

Can microbes help us get off fossil fuel? Maybe.

Start-up LS9 has stated in the past that they plan to produce a synthetic version of petroleum with the help of microorganisms. This week, it will provide some information on how the process works.

Stephen del Cardayre, who heads up LS9's research, will deliver a paper this week on the process at the annual meeting of the Society of Industrial Microbiology taking place this week at Denver.

Industrial microbiology, one of our favorite topics here, essentially revolves around exploiting the properties of naturally occurring or genetically enhanced organisms. Microorganisms, after all, are little chemical factories. Feed sugar to certain types of yeast and alcohol comes out--and, unlike human employees, you don't have to pay yeast. In the past few years, scientists have begun to explore ways to use them to produce semiconductor insulators or convert wood to fuel. Others are also looking at synthetic biology, which involves replicating microbe activity without the microbe.

The research is relatively new, but a few companies such as Cambrios Technologies (biologically inspired semiconductor materials) and Mascoma (microbes for ethanol) have indicated they could be ready for commercialization soon.

LS9 is part of a microbe mafia being assembled by Khosla Ventures, which has invested in several of these companies. (LS9 has received $5 million in venture funding.) A significant number of these companies are coming out of the University of California, Stanford and Caltech. LS9 in part grew out of research conducted by Chris Somerville, a Stanford professor and plant expert who will also participate in biofuels research at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, which is expected to calve off start-ups.

Presentations at the conference will also come from Amyris Technologies, which wants to make a biologically-inspired jet fuel (Amyris grew out of Berkeley) and UC Santa Cruz, which will present a paper on deriving substances from marine fungi.