Enhanced Transgenic BT-Methanogens

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Daniel J. Lessner

Daniel J. Lessner, a young biological life sciences professor at the University of Arkansas has genetically engineered an organism, methanogen, to produce methane.

Methane is one of the few greenhouses gases needed to keep the earth’s atmosphere warm.

Methane, is a marsh gas--the natural result of the underwater anaerobic bacterial decomposition of plant and animal matter. Lessner modified the methanogen organism by injecting it with a DNA that produces an enzyme needed to produce methane. The breakthrough should lead to the discovery of newer and more efficient ways to mass produce methane gas.

Methane is a primary component in natural gas and its principle use is fuel which heats homes and industries. Lessner’s discovery is not only timely but incredibly interesting to both scientific and economic communities because natural gas prices are the highest they have ever been.

Lessner and his Penn State colleagues, all of whom worked with him on this post-doctoral project, published their work in mBio.

Those methane producing organisms "are the only organisms that produce methane biologically, but they are limited in what they can do to produce methane,” Lessner said. The natural production of methane does not efficiently produce mass amounts of methane gas. Moreover, the process involves multiple species and is easily disrupted. To counteract that production dilemma, Lessner and his colleagues injected a gene into a methanogen. That DNA molecule then creates an enzyme that allows the methanogen to decompose complex molecules for its own consumption. The injected gene helps the methanogen break down esters and then consumes them. Afterward, the methogen produces methane.

Lessner says the esters might not work at an industrial scale, but it might be possible to engineer a methanogen that can break down glycerol, a waste produce from biodiesel fuel and have it produce methane. It is in this vein that Lessner’s research has established a platform to begin the genetic engineering of organisms to consume matter necessary to produce methane gas. Methanogens are a methane-producing anaerobic microogranism from the domain archaea that are thought to date back further in time than any other life form.

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