industrial smokestackScientists at the University of Dundee have discovered that E. coli bacteria could play a crucial role in capturing and storing carbon dioxide.

Professor Frank Sargent and colleagues at the University of Dundee’s School of Life Sciences, working with local industry partners Sasol UK and Ingenza Ltd, have developed a process that enables the E. coli bacterium to act as a very efficient carbon capture device.

Professor Sargent says reducing carbon dioxide emissions will require a basket of different solutions and nature offers some exciting options.

“Microscopic, single-celled bacteria are used to living in extreme environments and often perform chemical reactions that plants and animals cannot do,” he points out.

Speeding up the natural process

According to Professor Sargent the E. coli bacterium can grow in the complete absence of oxygen. When it does this it makes a special metal-containing enzyme, called ‘FHL’, which can interconvert gaseous carbon dioxide with liquid formic acid.

“This could provide an opportunity to capture carbon dioxide into a manageable product that is easily stored, controlled or even used to make other things. The trouble is the normal conversion process is slow and sometime unreliable,” he explains.

What the scientists have done is develop a process that places the FHL enzyme under pressurised carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas mixtures to speed up the process.

“This could be an important breakthrough in biotechnology. It should be possible to optimise the system still further and finally develop a `microbial cell factory’ that could be used to mop up carbon dioxide from many different types of industry,” Professor Sargent notes.

Recycling opportunities

Sargent adds that the E. coli solution’s ability to convert CO2 into a liquid that is stable and comparatively easily stored has major implications especially since Formic acid has several industrial uses, which include acting as a preservative and antibacterial agent in livestock feed, a coagulant in the production of rubber, and, in salt form, a de-icer for airport runways.

The results of the research are published in the journal Current Biology.