Scientists find bugs that eat waste and excrete petrol

Big Don

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Scientists find bugs that eat waste and excrete petrol

The Times June 14, 2008
Silicon Valley is experimenting with bacteria that have been genetically altered to provide 'renewable petroleum'
Excerpt:
“Ten years ago I could never have imagined I’d be doing this,” says Greg Pal, 33, a former software executive, as he squints into the late afternoon Californian sun. “I mean, this is essentially agriculture, right? But the people I talk to – especially the ones coming out of business school – this is the one hot area everyone wants to get into.”

He means bugs. To be more precise: the genetic alteration of bugs – very, very small ones – so that when they feed on agricultural waste such as woodchips or wheat straw, they do something extraordinary. They excrete crude oil.

Unbelievably, this is not science fiction. Mr Pal holds up a small beaker of bug excretion that could, theoretically, be poured into the tank of the giant Lexus SUV next to us. Not that Mr Pal is willing to risk it just yet. He gives it a month before the first vehicle is filled up on what he calls “renewable petroleum”. After that, he grins, “it’s a brave new world”.
 

Sukerkin

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As with many of the current avenues to extend the Petrol Age, there are a few problems {one could say bugs :angel:} with this approach. The one that springs to mind first is the same one that plagues the 'green' ethanol method i.e. you have to put quite a bit in for what you get out.

The energy equation will not be cheated so we either wait for millions of years of heat and pressure to make oil or we pay an energy overhead upfront. That overhead will be greater than the energy we get from the product but if it's small enough it may be worth doing as petrochemicals are just so incredibly useful.
 

Cryozombie

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Why cant they mutate bacteria that will eat bones and excrete titanium. I wanna titanium skeleton.

Why cant they mutate bacteria to eat Viruses and Excrete healty cells?

Maybe they can mutate a bacteria to eat my ex, and excrete a worthwhile human being...

Damn, now Im just getting nasty... Im gonna shut up.
 

jks9199

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Why cant they mutate bacteria that will eat bones and excrete titanium. I wanna titanium skeleton.

Why cant they mutate bacteria to eat Viruses and Excrete healty cells?

Maybe they can mutate a bacteria to eat my ex, and excrete a worthwhile human being...

Damn, now Im just getting nasty... Im gonna shut up.
They might be able to... but there might be unexpected consequences.

Timothy Zahn's Cobra series does a nice job of addressing some of these unintended consequences.

And I gotta wonder about unintended consequences with these bugs, too... It sounds like a great idea, even if it's only a relative drop in the bucket. But what if they get loose in world? Could we suddenly find ourselves surrounded by crude oil... and nothing else?
 
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Big Don

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The article reminded me of Dean Koontz's The Bad Place, where he had bugs with plum sized heads that ate rocks and crapped diamonds.
 

tellner

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jks, Sukerkin, Don, et al. you're behind the curve...

Until, one day, a somnolent city-editor
Gave a new cub the termite yarn to break his teeth on.
The cub was just down from Vermont, so he took his time.
He was serious about it. He went around.
He read all about termites in the Public Library
And it made him sore when they fired him.
So, one evening,
Talking with an old watchman, beside the first
Raw girders of the new Planetopolis Building
(Ten thousand brine-cooled offices, each with shower)
He saw a dark line creeping across the rubble
And turned a flashlight on it.
Say, buddy, he said,
Youd better look out for those ants. They eat wood, you know,
Theyll have your shack down in no time.
The watchman spat.
Oh, theyve quit eating wood, he said, in a casual voice,
I thought everybody knew that.
And, reaching down,
He pried from the insect jaws the bright crumb of steel.

From Steven Benet's Metropolitan Nightmare (1933)
 

Sukerkin

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: ulp :! :D. It's a bit of an aside but if anyone can dig up a copy of "Mutant 59" it's well worth a read. It certainly brought home to me just how much plastic is used everywhere. The authors are Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, the publisher Souvenir Press.
 

tellner

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Microbes are very, very efficient at turning whatever they eat into more microbes and whatever they use as waste. If there's an erg of free energy somewhere you can be sure that a bacterium, an fungus or an insect exists or will shortly come to exist that will eat it. When your generation time is measured in minutes or weeks you can do a lot of evolution very quickly. If it doesn't happen naturally we will soon be able to make one ourselves.

The possibilities are staggering. They can be staggeringly good or staggeringly bad. We could all turn green and get most of our food from sunlight or be killed off in lightning-quick plagues. Our ethics and foresight are running a lap or two behind our wisdom and sense of racial self-preservation.

Sukerkin's caution is well-taken. No matter how we do it we can't get away from thermodynamics. The energy we get out of any of these processes will be significantly less than what went into them. We can not freeze enough sunlight to equal millions of years worth we've burnt up in the past couple centuries. At most these fermentation schemes capture some of what would otherwise go to waste.
 

Kacey

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It's an interesting thought... but as others have said, it is too little, too late, and too likely to have unforeseen side effects (or foreseen side effects that aren't prevented carefully enough). In addition to the cautionary tales already mentioned, Larry Niven mentions, in one of the Ringworld books, a mutated bacterium that ate superconductors, causing the fall of the Ringworld civilization, and another that ate plastic, causing Earth to find a substitute.

In addition to concerns about mutation and/or escape - the byproducts of the many uses for crude oil are such that I would prefer to see continuing research into alternatives (for fuel, to create plastics, etc.) rather than creation of more crude oil; that just gives people reasons to not seek alternatives to crude oil, to not conserve it while the alternatives are being produced, and to not support the use of alternatives when they become marketable.
 

mrhnau

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In addition to concerns about mutation and/or escape - the byproducts of the many uses for crude oil are such that I would prefer to see continuing research into alternatives (for fuel, to create plastics, etc.) rather than creation of more crude oil; that just gives people reasons to not seek alternatives to crude oil, to not conserve it while the alternatives are being produced, and to not support the use of alternatives when they become marketable.

Freeing ourselves from oil sounds nice. It won't ever happen. There are other uses of oil that simply won't be going away any time soon. We can reduce our dependency, which is intelligent, and hopefully find a renewable source. Maybe this can be such a source? Any new form of energy production is going to have its problems. I don't see this as taking away from other alternatives. I don't think our energy solution will ever be single pronged. Will take many different angles of attack to get to a meaningful solution.
 

juliapaulson789

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bugs that eat waste and excrete petrol... aren't they called Lawyers??
I don't know what run-in you had with a lawyer that caused you to hate anyone in that profession so much. Still, please know that many good-hearted criminal lawyers, law students, and law professors can't stand all the snide, off-the-cuff lawyer jokes people throw around. Sure, there are scumbag lawyers out there, but do me a favor and try not to lump every attorney among them.
 
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Buka

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I don't know what run-in you had with a lawyer that caused you to hate anyone in that profession so much. Still, please know that many good-hearted criminal lawyers, law students, and law professors can't stand all the snide, off-the-cuff lawyer jokes people throw around. Sure, there are scumbag lawyers out there, but do me a favor and try not to lump every attorney among them.
The person you're responding to hasn't been on this forum for many years.

Julia, are you an Attorney?
 

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