Scientists explore using bacteria as building blocks for alternative fuels

Researchers at Northwestern University’s Jewett Lab use E. coli and other strains to innovate new renewable compounds

By Valerie Nikolas
Medill Reports

At Northwestern University’s Jewett Lab in the Center for Synthetic Biology, researchers aim to create sustainable chemicals and materials out of existing organic compounds. Using cell-free metabolic engineering, they isolate the structural components from existing organisms, such as E. coli, and manipulate them to create new compounds. These types of reactions are called “cell-free” because they occur outside the confines of a cell.

“We focus on E. coli because it is super well-studied,” said Ashty Karim, research fellow and assistant scientific director at the Jewett Lab. “We know a lot about how it functions and how to manipulate it to do our engineering objectives.”

The lab’s engineering objectives are to create sustainable and renewable chemicals that can be used for biofuels and in manufacturing.

Ashty Karim, research fellow and assistant scientific director at the Jewett Lab, holds up a sample of cryogenically frozen E. coli. (Valerie Nikolas/MEDILL REPORTS)