Consuming CO2

Entrenched in an endless

cycle of external consumption,

the intractable habits of your

daily transgressions castigate

your presence; a scourge on

the environment you inhabit.

Eschewing independence,

your gluttonous palette

moistens as disposable feasts

line up before you; their

limitations beyond the focus

of your insatiable gaze.

 

The consequences of your

excess force the change.

Weaned from a diet of

carefree depletion, you slowly

break free from your cycle;

rewiring learnt processes

with every temperate step.

Learning to create, you

strive to be self-sufficient;

healing the damage that

once you wrought.

Low-temperature electron micrograph of a cluster of E. coli bacteria, magnified 10,000 times (Image Credit: Eric Erbe, via Wikimedia Commons).

This poem is inspired by recent research, which has created a strain of the bacteria E. coli, that use carbon dioxide for the carbon atoms that build their biomass.

The living world can be divided into two types of organisms. Autotrophs, like plants, which create their own food from inorganic materials such as light and carbon dioxide (CO2). And heterotrophs, like animals and some forms of bacteria, which rely on consuming other organisms and organic compounds in order to survive. One of the biggest challenges of synthetic biology (the design and construction of new biological entities), has been to create heterotrophs in a laboratory environment, primarily with the aim of producing bacteria that is capable of eating inorganic substances (mimicking the behaviour of autotrophs) in order to produce energy.

In this new study, researchers succeeded in creating a strain of the bacteria Escherichia coli, or E. coli that could use the CO2 to build their biomass (new bacteria), essentially rewiring the bacteria’s metabolic processes in order to do so. The bacteria use a compound called formate to obtain energy. Upon the consumption of each formate molecule the bacteria emit a CO2 molecule (which potentially they can consume to form new biomass).  E.coli is usually a heterotrophic organism, meaning that it obtains its food from a different source (rather than creating its own food like autotrophic organism would), yet in this study the researchers were able to convert E. coli into autotrophs, meaning that they consume CO2 instead of relying on organic compounds. Despite the successes of this research, there is a major limitation in that currently this process produces more CO2 than it consumes, as growing the synthetic E. coli requires a significant energy source. However, the researchers involved in this study hope that their work can provide a foundation for carbon-neutral energy sources in the future; for example, by modifying the process so that the energy needed for growing the synthetic E. coli is provided via renewable electricity.

An audio version of this poem can be heard here:

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