Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

Cheesy Microbes Could Make Biofuel As Well As Brie

[Image: Flickr user Minyoung Choi]

Lactococcus lactis is a hard-working bug. Designated as the state microbe of Wisconsin, Lactococcus is used in the production of buttermilk, cheese, and yogurt. And according to researchers from Concordia University, the microbe could help turn plant matter into biofuels.

So should we gear up for a cheese shortage, considering how ethanol subsidies diverted corn crops and raised global food prices?

Concordia researchers recently discovered that the scaffolding proteins on the surface of the microbe can be engineered to break down plant material. "This is the first study to show how the scaffolding proteins can be secreted and localized to the of Lactococcus," explained Concordia biology professor Vincent Martin in a statement.

It's a small step towards biofuel production, to be sure, but the Concordia research paper emphasizes that it is a "key step in the development of recombinant microorganisms capable of ... direct conversion of cellulosic substrates into fuels." In other words, the Lactococcus study could be the precursor to other studies that use genetically-engineered microbes to efficiently produce fuel.

It also means we don't need to worry about a cheese shortage anytime soon. Other bacteria could be used for the same biofuel-producing purpose (e.coli, for example). In any case, the microbe can be produced in the lab. As long as researchers feed fast-growing and easily replaceable plant matter to their biofuel-excreting Lactococcus microbes, we won't have a problem.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.