The future of industrial production doesn’t depend on drilling for oil and mining minerals. It depends on biology. Scientists are transforming microbes and other life forms into tiny, specialized factories that extrude plastic, turn waste water into fuel, and even clean up radioactive waste.
Here are six experiments in genetic engineering that are making the world a better place.
Turning waste water into fuel and drinkable water
In the twenty-first century, demand for clean drinking water is going to grow enormously. Sure, our planet is covered in water, but current filtration methods are costly, making it difficult to turn salt water or waste water into something we can drink. But a filtration system powered in part by “exoelectrogenic biofilms,” or specially-prepared Geobacteraceae, bacteria that are electrically conductive. By carefully manipulating these bacteria, researchers can filter water while also generating fuel as a byproduct.
Using a modified fuel cell, Penn State environmental engineer Bruce Logan and his research group conducted a series of experiments on waste water from a California winery. The group added waste water to a fuel cell which already runs on the exoelectrogenic biofilm. As water rushes over the films, the bacteria consume the waste water, releasing protons. These protons than cannot pass through an oppositely charged barrier that is present. This causes negatively charged ions in an adjacent chamber, where waste water is held, to cross the barrier into the waste water chamber, removing a significant component of contamination in the process. This is then repeated in a third chamber. The current process can remove 90% of the salt from salt water, leaving the water in a brackish state, so an increase in efficiency is needed before drinking water could be readily obtained. At the same time, processing the waste produces methane gas and other gases, which can be used as fuel.
Another group of researchers have created a biofilm that can be used to separate waste components from water in over a thousand liters in less than a day. This biotechnology was created by researchers at Sam Houston University and supported by funding from the Department of Defense, with the system currently deployment alongside troops in Afghanistan.
Read the other five here Six Biological Engineering Experiments That Could Save The World.