Using microorganisms to solve human needs is hardly anything new; from crude-oil producing algae to pro-biotic drinks, a whole host of miniature marvels are proving that bigger is not necessarily better.
And in the world of waste management, we're no strangers to the principal; technologies like anaerobic digestion have been installed for decades now, turning waste into useful biogas that can be fed back into generators for heating and electricity.
This week, however, a whole new level was useful waste-usage has been reached by the scientists at MIT, whose latest advancement is a bacteria with a rather special party trick - turning waste into fuel.
To give the bacteria it's proper name, Ralstonia eutropha is naturally a miniature plastics factory. Whenever the organism is stressed, it goes into 'carbon storage mode'; taking carbon from any source -and given the sheer amount of carbon in the world, it never falls short - and turns it into a polymer that it can break down for later use.
Whilst plastic seems so inorganic and man-made, Ralstonia eutropha's polymer shares many properties with petroleum-based plastics, according to Christopher Brigham, a research scientist in MIT’s biology department.
Brigham explained that his research team saw the bacteria's potential as a two-birds-with-one stone potential - a natural resource which could provide a waste management solution and produce fuel, by knocking out a few genes, inserting a gene from another organism and tinkering with the expression of other genes, Brigham and his colleagues were able to redirect the microbe to make fuel instead of plastic.
The result is this specially-engineered organism, which breaks down carbon and produces isobutanol - which can be directly substituted for, or blended with, petrol and other fossil fuels.
Whilst the team's marquee experiment has been getting the microbe to use pollutant CO2 as a carbon source, elsewhere in the laboratory, the microbes have been using fructose, a sugar, as their carbon source.
Turning Waste Into Fuel with Ralstonia EutrophaEven focusing on fructose, the MIT-produced bacteria could be introduced into landfills, breaking down food waste, agricultural waste or municipal waste into something that could directly fuel automobiles or generators - with no harmful byproducts.
Whilst it will take years more research to perfect the bacteria and plan how it would work within existing facilities, this environmental-issue-busting 'two-for-one' has already proven itself as a potential waste management solution to watch for in the future.