Scientists say a project to use bacteria to create a super-strong, lightweight and green material has reached an advanced stage.
Genes from the family of bacteria that produce vinegar, Kombucha tea and nata de coco have become stars in a project to turn algae into solar-powered factories for producing the "wonder material" nanocellulose.
Their report on advances in getting those genes to produce fully functional nanocellulose was part of the 245th National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), which started yesterday.
Nanocellulose-based materials can be stronger than steel and stiffer than Kevlar and its great strength, light weight and other advantages has fostered interest in using it in everything from lightweight armour and ballistic glass to wound dressings and scaffolds for growing replacement organs for transplantation.
"If we can complete the final steps, we will have accomplished one of the most important potential agricultural transformations ever," said R. Malcolm Brown, Jr., PhD.
"We will have plants that produce nanocellulose abundantly and inexpensively. It can become the raw material for sustainable production of biofuels and many other products. While producing nanocellulose, the algae will absorb carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas linked to global warming."
Brown, who has pioneered research in the field for more than 40 years, spoke at the First International Symposium on Nanocellulose, part of the ACS meeting.
Cellulose is the most abundant organic polymer on Earth, making up tree trunks and branches, corn stalks and cotton fibres, and it is the main component of paper and cardboard.
Most cellulose consists of wood fibres and cell wall remains and very few living organisms can actually synthesize and secrete cellulose in its native nanostructure form of microfibrils.
In the 1800s, French scientist Louis Pasteur first discovered that vinegar-making bacteria make "a sort of moist skin, swollen, gelatinous and slippery" — a "skin" now known as bacterial nanocellulose.
Nanocellulose made by bacteria has advantages, including ease of production and high purity that fostered the kind of scientific excitement reflected in the first international symposium on the topic, Brown pointed out.
Brown recalled that in 2001, a discovery by David Nobles, PhD, a member of the research team at the University of Texas at Austin, refocused their research on nanocellulose, but with a different microbe.
Nobles established that several kinds of blue-green algae, which are mainly photosynthetic bacteria much like the vinegar-making bacteria in basic structure, but these blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, can produce nanocellulose.
One of the largest problems with cyanobacterial nanocellulose is that it is not made in abundant amounts in nature, but if it could be scaled up, Brown describes this as "one of the most important discoveries in plant biology."
And In his report at the ACS meeting, Brown described how his team already has genetically engineered the cyanobacteria to produce one form of nanocellulose, the long-chain, or polymer, form of the material.
They are now moving ahead with the next step, engineering the cyanobacteria to synthesize a more complete form of nanocellulose, one that is a polymer with a crystalline architecture and he also said that operations are being scaled up, with research moving from laboratory-sized tests to larger outdoor facilities.
Brown expressly pointed out that one of the major barriers to commercialising nanocellulose fuels involves national policy and politics, rather than science.
Biofuels, he said, will face a difficult time for decades into the future in competing with the less-expensive natural gas now available with hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking".
But in the long run, the United States will need sustainable biofuels, he said, citing the importance of national energy policies that foster parallel development and commercialisation of biofuels.