(Weizmann Institute) (Weizmann Institute)

The bacteria have been trained to eat only carbon dioxide instead of sugar.

By United with Israel Staff

Israeli researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science announced Wednesday the development of bacteria that feed off carbon dioxide and not sugar. The breakthrough may have ramifications for fighting global warming and developing carbon-neutral fuels.

The study was published in the journal Cell.

The research was performed in the lab of Prof. Ron Milo, with Roee Ben-Nissan, Yinon Bar-On and other members of Milo’s team in the Institute’s Plant and Environmental Sciences Department. It involved “rational design, genetic engineering and a sped-up version of evolution,” Weizmann Wonder Wander (WWW) reported.

“Our lab was the first to pursue the idea of changing the diet of a normal heterotroph (one that eats organic substances) to convert it to autotrophism (‘living on air’),” Milo said, according to WWW. “It sounded impossible at first, but it has taught us numerous lessons along the way, and in the end we showed it indeed can be done. Our findings are a significant milestone toward our goal of efficient, green scientific applications.”

The scientists worked for nearly a decade to wean the bacteria off sugar slowly and avoid starvation. Instead, the bacteria built biomass from carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air. In addition, they “inserted a gene that allowed the bacteria to get energy from a readily available substance called formate that can be produced directly from electricity and air and which is apt to ‘give up’ electrons to the bacteria,” according to the report.

In order to get the bacteria to change its “diet,” the scientists continuously diminished the amount of sugar, usually from corn syrup, that bacteria feed on and, at the same time, gave it carbon dioxide and formate.

The bacteria’s offspring were able to gradually be weaned off sugar dependence. After six months of adjusting to the new diet, some did a complete nutritional turnover.

“The researchers believe that the bacteria’s new ‘health kick’ could ultimately be healthy for the planet,” noted WWW.

Scientists are hopeful that the research could help reduce greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere and fight global warming by having bacteria eat atmospheric CO2. Additionally, they hope that bacteria could further adapt to living off of electrons from solar collectors and store the energy for later use as fuel. This fuel would be carbon-neutral, meaning that it would have no carbon footprint on the environment.

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