Escherichia coli (E. coli) is the most studied bacteria on the planet. As an important component of the gut microflora, E. coli has been shown to confer health benefits to humans but it is also associated with infectious disease that can be severe and life-threatening. Research is pursing the manipulation of this organism in order to direct its biochemical activity to produce substances of use to mankind, such as detergents, lubricants and biofuels.

A particularly productive arm of this type of research has been performed by the U.S. Department of Energy that has focused on the pathways E. coli uses to synthesize fatty acids and the chemical products of these pathways. The fatty acid synthase (FAS) pathway in E. coli is a highly regulated system so pathway products are only generated as and when required by the cell. Researchers introduced genes from other bacteria into the E. coli genome that express for FAS-related enzymes and, in so doing, created an alternative in vivo FAS pathway. E. coli’s normal FAS genetic regulation is then by-passed, allowing more abundant conversion of biomass into biofuel precursors.

The manipulation of microbes, particularly E. coli, has long been shown to be an effective tool in the bio-production of substances of value to medicine and industry. The use of genetic recombination technology is widespread in biological research. Its deployment in E. coli to direct the microbe to produce biofuels is an area of research that is of understandable interest because of the sustainable nature of this alternative method of energy production.