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University of Alberta Team wins iGEM Prize for Bioengineering E. Coli to Produce Butanol

A 10-member team of University of Alberta students, who call themselves the “Butanerds,” won first prize in the Energy and the Environment category at the fourth annual International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition held this past weekend at MIT.

The team has been working on manipulating E. coli to produce butanol by introducing the genes responsible for butanol production from Clostridium acetobutylicum (i.e. endogenous butanoate pathway) into E. coli. Furthermore, the team is working to increase E. coli’s tolerance to solvents such as butanol.

The process is still rather inefficient, and the team is working with computer models to see how to increase production levels.

We haven’t gotten any further with our lab work [due to getting ready for the competition]. Hopefully, within the next month we’ll be producing butanol and we’ll have furthered our development of our computer modelling. It’s a very complex project.

—Justin Pahara, senior team member

The grand prize “BioBrick”award went to a team from Peking University. The Chinese team was among 54 from around the world who came to the 2007 iGem Jamboree to present innovative research in synthetic biology with projects that ranged from “Bactoblood” (a bioengineered alternative to human blood) to a “vitrotrap” that defended cells against HIV infection to an “Artificial Bio-Logic Circuit.”

The grand prize-winning team from Peking impressed judges with their construction of a bacterial assembly line with spatial and temporal differentiation. Ultraviolet radiation was used as a turn on/turn off switch and cells were designed to signal each other in proscribed ways. Team members said the process could have medical and engineering applications.

Participants in iGem participants are given a toolkit and “BioBricks,” or bits of DNA from the MIT-based Registry of Standard Biological Parts. Each year, more BioBricks become available as the iGem teams add their creations to the stockpile.



Rafael Seidl

What is the advantage of introducing these genes into E.coli strains? Are those bacteria easier to culture? If so, is there any risk that they could end up in the digestive tracts of livestock or even humans?

GM is all fine and good but it shouldn't be done for its own sake. There has to be a good reason to do it (e.g. higher yield) and adequate safety precautions and, both should be explained.


We use E. coli as the standard molecular cloning workhorse, partly because it is very easy to get DNA into it and also because it is very well characterised.

Currently there is a push to create a kind of 'Linux' style strain of E. coli, with all the extraneous genetic information simplified or removed so that 'reprogramming' with various metabolic and genetic circuits can be built in a very simple fashion by genetic 'software developers'. This would enable the use of off-the-shelf gene units that should all work together, just like commercial subroutines in programming.


E. Coli is used as a host organism for the production of a wide range of biological molecules. It is used because it is quite easy to kill. Remember that these processes are enclosed in a fermentation vessel, a controlled, engineered environment. I worked in the biotech industry and any waste that was produced was passed through a sterilizer and "kill pit." Essentially, this heated the waste materials to a high enough temperature to kill the E. coli before the sludge was sent to a wastewater treatment plant for further processing. Industrially, there should be multiple layers of processes to ensure that GM E. coli does not come in contact with human populations. Having said that, it is very important to ask questions like Rafael's about new biotech processes. We all need to know the impact that our demand for energy and other products has on our health and environment.

If we can produce butanol economically, I would recommend that another student team (or perhaps, researchers at Ford, GM, etc) test mixtures of butanol, ethanol, and methanol in spark-ignited engines and see how such mixtures work out regarding emissions and performance.

Butanol sounds like a good deal if it can be produced economically. Its a good fuel in and of itself (BTW: read www.butanol.com), and lends itself to blending with other alcohols. In particular, mixing methanol with b. tends to mask the former's tendency toward phase separation when blended with gasoline.


Does this mean we can expect bio-butanol from Jack-in-the-box and Organic spinach producers? :)

Hold a match over your spinach. If it catches fire, don't eat it. What better way to test for E.Coli that a simple viusal test that anyone can perform. Only problem is when people start dying from a combination of e.coli, asphyxiation and burning to death. But it has potential.


This is great if this works it will change mankind. Does butanol have more energy than gasoline? MY bio teacher tells me so. This is sweet


This is great if this works it will change mankind. Does butanol have more energy than gasoline? MY bio teacher tells me so. This is sweet


Butanol has about 90% the heating value of gasoline on a per volume basis.


Butanol has about 90% the heating value of gasoline on a per volume basis.

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