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DARPA awards WUSTL researcher $860,000 to engineer E. coli to produce gasoline-range molecules

The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) of the US Department of Defense has awarded Dr. Fuzhong Zhang, assistant professor of energy, environmental & chemical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) a Young Faculty Award worth $860,000 to engineer the bacterium Escherichia coli to produce gasoline-range molecules.

Zhang’s award funds up to three years of research on his plan to engineer bacteria to produce non-natural fatty acids, which can be converted to advanced biofuels and chemicals. Zhang will engineer the fatty acid pathway to make a molecule with a chemical structure similar to isooctane—a major component in gasoline.

Currently, most engineers are able to engineer bacteria to synthesize ethanol, butanol or biodiesel, but nobody has been able to synthesize gasoline. Our goal is not only to make gasoline, but also to go broader so that the next step would allow us to produce many useful chemicals that are currently derived from petroleum, such as detergents, solvents and lubricants.

—Fuzhong Zhang

Zhang says the bacterium was a natural choice for this project.

E. coli grows very rapidly and has an efficient fatty acid biosynthetic system. Once we engineer it, it will produce chemicals very efficiently. Secondly, E. coli is a well-engineered and well-understood bacteria, so many tools have already been developed that we can use to control the pathway much better than with other hosts.

—Fuzhong Zhang

Zhang is the first faculty member at Washington University in St. Louis to receive the award, which recognizes scientists early in their careers at research universities. This year, DARPA awarded more than $12 million to 25 researchers out of 226 applicants.

Before taking his faculty position at Washington University in St. Louis, Zhang completed his postdoctoral fellowship in the Keasling Laboratory at the University of California-Berkeley and the Joint Bioenergy Institute.

The long-term goal of the DARPA Young Faculty Award Program is to develop the next generation of scientists and engineers who will focus their careers and research on the Department of Defense and national security issues.

Zhang is also a research team member of an NSF-sponsored project to develop the design principles to establish nitrogen fixing ability in an oxygenic photosynthetic organism, unicellular cyanobacterium. Cyanobacteria are blue-green algae of which certain strains are capable of gathering and converting atmospheric nitrogen. (Earlier post.)

In this project, researchers led by Washington University in St. Louis biologist Himadri B. Pakrasi will attempt to use the ingenious strategies employed by the cyanobacterium to define the minimum requirements for nitrogen fixation to occur in photosynthetic cells, including those in crop plants. The researchers will also attempt to engineer plant cells with the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen into usable compounds.


  • Zhang, F., Carothers, J.M., Keasling, J.D. (2012) Design of a dynamic sensor-regulator system for production of chemicals and fuels derived from fatty acids. Nat Biotechnol, 30, (4), 354-359 doi: 10.1038/nbt.2149

  • Peralta-Yahya, P.P., Zhang, F., del Cardayre, S.B., Keasling, J.D. (2012) Microbial engineering for the production of advanced biofuels. Nature, 488, 74110, 320-328 doi: 10.1038/nature11478

  • Zhang, F., Ouellet, M., Batth, T.S. Adams, P.D., Petzold, C.J., Mukhopadhyay, A., Keasling, J.D. (2012) Enhancing fatty acid production by the expression of the regulatory transcription factor FadR. Metab Eng, 14, 653-660 doi: 10.1038/nature11478


Dave Murphy

Why not adding ammonia to gas? That really makes it better! Cars and diesels can run on pure ammonia. No CO2 no NOX.

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