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Alchemy in our time

Scientific research just keeps amazing us. But turning discoveries into practical realities sometimes turns out to be the hard part.

It's not quite lead-into-gold, but researchers at Britain's University of Exeter are reporting a transformation almost as remarkable: by genetic manipulation they have created a strain of E coli bacteria that converts sugar into something almost identical to diesel fuel.

Starting with E coli may prove to be a public relations coup for Prof John Love and his fellow researchers. Although most strains are harmless, this bacterium has had bad press, because one type is responsible for human gastroenteritis, among other ailments. Prepared foods are often recalled when E coli contamination is found.

So converting this little monster into a fuel factory is a stroke of genius.

To be sure, there's no reason for panic in Opec capitals: Prof Love and his colleagues have accomplished this result in a test tube, but the research and engineering needed to convert this lab-bench success into an industrial process will doubtless take a long time.

The last breakthrough in biofuel, after all, has fizzled rather badly, because politics got involved. Ethanol from corn has become a cash spigot for farmers in the US and elsewhere, but the actual cost per unit of energy is still uneconomic, and the change has elevated some grain prices, no benefit in a hungry world. Real life is more complicated than the lab.

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