South Korean scientists have successfully produced gasoline using genetically engineered Escherichia coli or E. coli. The findings, published in the journal Nature, described the scientists’ novel technique where the bacterium was capable of making the liquid fuel.

“The significance of this breakthrough is that you don’t have to go through another process to crack the oil created by E. coli to produce gasoline. We have succeeded in converting glucose or waste biomass directly into gasoline,” Prof. Lee Sang-yup at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology told the Wall Street Journal.

The technique involved feeding E. coli glucose, which produced enzymes that converted the sugar to fatty acids. The fatty acids were than converted into hydrocarbons that resemble commercial fuel, Lee told the news outlet.

“The gasoline we’re generating could be used in your car. It has identical composition and chemical properties to conventional petrol,” Lee said.

This “platform” that allowed the bacterium to create biofuel can also be modified to make other products such as short-chain fatty esters and short-chain fatty alcohols. And while his team is capable of making just 580 milligrams of gasoline per liter, Lee said the breakthrough is in its early stages.

“It is only the beginning of the work towards sustainable production of gasoline,” he said. “We are currently working on increasing the titre, yield and productivity of bio-gasoline. Nonetheless, we are pleased to report, for the first time, the production of gasoline through the metabolic engineering of E. coli, which we hope will serve as a basis for the metabolic engineering of microorganisms to produce fuels and chemicals from renewable resources."

While gasoline and other fossil fuels have contributed to global warming, biofuels are seen as a viable alternative. But some say greener fuels might divert food crops and drive up food prices.

“I know there’s the food-versus-fuel controversy. But I don’t buy that argument,” Lee said. “There are tons of biomass which are being wasted on earth. There are a lot of biomass we can smartly use. Smart use is the key here. And then you can generate energy without harming the food chain or the environment.”

Europe has felt the impact of crop-based biofuels. Earlier this month, the European Union Parliament voted to limit the continent’s use of biofuel since it was found to produce more emissions than fossil fuels and drove up food prices, Nature reports.

The KAIST team isn’t the first to turn bacterium to biofuel. Back in April, British scientists were able to make E. coli convert sugar into an oil similar to conventional diesel.

"Rather than making a replacement fuel like some biofuels, we have made a substitute fossil fuel,” Professor John Love, a synthetic biologist from the University of Exeter, told the BBC. "The idea is that car manufacturers, consumers and fuel retailers wouldn't even notice the difference - it would just become another part of the fuel production chain."