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Nonetheless, Stephanopoulos says he has suceeded in increasing E. coli and yeasts’ ethanol production. He has also introduced a complex yeast trait – tolerance to higher amounts of ethanol – to E. coli cells. Stephanopoulos has created a technology he calls global Transcriptional Machinery Engineering (gTME). It “allows us to simultaneously modify multiple genes and introduce important new [traits],” he says.

Stephanopoulos says biofuels have not been successful in the past – but their time is coming. “I feel bullish about applying these methods for energy production. We now have an idea of how much biomass is in the U.S. The prospect of getting cheap products from it is on the horizon.” Using his technique, Stephanopoulos says he “can easily see the possibility of engineering organisms to produce liquid fuels.”

Given sky-high crude oil prices, “ethanol biomass fuels look like they could be a decent alternative to oil, as long as you don’t use a lot of fossil fuels in the process,” says John Reilly, associate research director of MIT’s Joint Program on Climate Change. Reilly points to the success of “flex-cars” in Brazil, which can run on ethanol from sugar cane, gasoline, or a combination of both. “It provides an easy way to put whatever’s cheaper in the tank,” he says.

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