In this article, the author, Harry Cockburn, gives an account of the recent research from Shmuel Gleizer (Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel) and colleagues dealing with the creation of a strain of E. coli that can convert CO2 to biomass carbon (reduced form). The research, which was recently published in Cell, looks at a proof-of-concept of genetically modifying the common bacteria, E. coli, to use the autotrophic cycle, also called the Calvin cycle, to carry out CO2-fixation pathways that convert the CO2 to biomass that the bacteria can use as fuel to grow. The autotrophic cycle is what autotrophs (trees) use to make the energy that the cells need. The cycle itself needs an initial “jolt” of energy to kickstart the cycle. Plants have developed a clever chemistry trick over millions of years of evolution to use sunlight as this initial energy input, but other forms of energy can be implemented to start the cycle. This group at the Weizmann Institute of Science looked to engineer the autotrophic cycle into the genetic makeup of the bacteria and to use the one-carbon molecule formate as the jumpstart for the cycle.
Cockburn’s article provides a well-versed summary of the findings of the novel research while avoiding any exaggerated extrapolations regarding climate change. Both Cockburn and Ron Milo, who is the senior author of the paper, made it clear in the news article that this was simply a proof-of-concept idea and the fact that it worked helps to open more doors for thoughts and concepts of dealing with climate change in the future. The news article also addresses the current issue with the set-up where more CO2 is produced by the bacteria than is taken in but states that the researcher’s next step in the project is to alleviate that problem.
While Cockburn’s article did an excellent job at explaining the findings of the research, it did lack further explanations in some key places. First, Cockburn stated that they system currently produces more CO2 than is taken in by the system but does not go into detail as to why that is. It easily could have been included in the news article that the CO2 being released from the system is coming from the fact that the formate is being used as the initial energy source. In the jumpstart reactions, the formate is being oxidized to CO2 and is being released. This issue can easily be solved though with the electrochemical reduction of CO2 to formate. If a renewable source of energy like wind or solar power is used to power the electrochemical cell, the formate can constantly be recycled, and the bacteria can constantly consume atmospheric CO2 leading to a net consumption of CO2. Another aspect that is not mentioned in this article is why using these genetically engineered bacteria is any better than the naturally occurring alternative, trees. While this argument brings up the question, “why even bother with the bacteria?”, one must remember that when it comes to climate change, any additional efforts could be beneficial to the overall cause. Another argument for using the bacteria is the fact that the bacteria grows rapidly, doubling every 18 hours, whereas trees take years to grow to sizes that consume considerable amounts of CO2.
Overall, Cockburn provides an easy to read summary of the investigation that was done by Ron Milo’s group. The journal article itself is freely accessible and, like the news article, is an easy and interesting read to gain more insight into the details of the experimentation and results of these studies.
Harry Cockburn provides a solid report on new research that could truly help climate change scientists in the near future. Shmuel Gleizer and his team have recently reported their creation of a strain of E. coli that can transform CO2 to biomass – a novel concept. The team genetically manipulated the bacteria to make use of the Calvin cycle which is commonly seen in plants. With clever alterations to some of the substrates, Gleizer and his team managed to have the new strain of E. coli successfully consume CO2, the main greenhouse has of concern. The bacteria still release more carbon than they fixate through the process, so there is much work to be done.
Cockburn does well not to exaggerate claims in his news article. He clearly notes that this research is still only a proof-of-concept project, and that the general public should not jump to conclusions too soon. While this could very well be a stepping stone towards battling climate change, Gleizer simply wanted to see if such a change in diet was possible for bacteria, and his work is not a scalable ready-to-go climate solution.
Given the amazing results Gleizer and his team had, it would be easy for a modern journalist to take advantage of a click bate headline. Instead, Cockburn stuck with a minimalist approach to reporting the science and let the words of the researchers themselves do the talking. Overall, this is an accurate, well written news article that sticks to the facts and does not exaggerate, sensationalize or fictionalize.
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