Tayside and Central Scotland

E. coli bug could help with carbon capture, say scientists

E. coli Image copyright University of Dundee
Image caption The team found the E. coli bacterium acted as a very efficient carbon capture device

Scientists at Dundee University say they have discovered that common gut bacteria could hold the key to the efficient capturing and even recycling of carbon dioxide (CO2).

The team says E. coli can be used to turn the gas into liquid formic acid.

This could then be stored more easily than CO2 and even turned into other products.

The results of the research have been published in the journal Current Biology.

'Really useful'

The study was led by Prof Frank Sargent. Speaking on the BBC's Good Morning Scotland radio programme, he said his team were looking into how E. coli broke down sugars into carbon dioxide and hydrogen, when they had an idea.

"We had this brainwave that actually maybe we could get this process to run in reverse - maybe if we gave the E. Coli carbon dioxide and hydrogen, then it could convert it in to a different product," he said.

"It converts it into a substance called formic acid - it's a bit like vinegar. But this is really useful development because you can imagine that if you are trying to control carbon emissions, trying to control a gas, it's very difficult to do.

"But if you have got a liquid form of that carbon, it's much easier to store, much easier to transport around the country and actually you can use it to make other products."

Last year, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said concentrations of CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere surged to a record high in 2016.

The Scottish government has set a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 66% by 2032.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The scientists said new ways of capturing and storing CO2 will be needed in the future

The work at Dundee University has been carried out with local industry partners Sasol UK and Ingenza Ltd.

Prof Sargent added: "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."

"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.

"Not all bacteria are bad. Some might even save the planet."

The scientists hope their discovery will also help with the storage and recycling of CO2.

"The E. coli solution we have found isn't only attractive as a carbon capture technology, it converts it into a liquid that is stable and comparatively easily stored," said Prof Sargent.

"Formic acid also has industrial uses, from 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. It could also be potentially recycled into biological processes that produce CO2, forming a virtuous loop."

The research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

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