Michael Adams at the University of Georgia and his colleagues have found a way to transform the carbon dioxide trapped in the atmosphere into useful industrial products.
Their discovery could lead to the creation of biofuels made directly from the greenhouse gas responsible for trapping the sun's rays and raising global temperatures, a university release reported Tuesday.
"Basically, what we have done is create a microorganism that does with carbon dioxide exactly what plants do -- absorb it and generate something useful," Adams said.
Plants use sunlight to transform water and carbon dioxide into sugars they use for energy, sugars that can be fermented into fuels like ethanol.
However, it has proven difficult to efficiently extract the sugars because they are locked inside the plant's complex cell walls, the researchers said.
"What this discovery means is that we can remove plants as the middleman," Adams said. "We can take carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and turn it into useful products like fuels and chemicals without having to go through the inefficient process of growing plants and extracting sugars from biomass."
A unique microorganism called Pyrococcus furiosus, or "rushing fireball," thrives by feeding on carbohydrates in the super-heated ocean waters near geothermal vents.
Adams and his colleagues have manipulated the organism's genetic material to create a version of P. furiosus capable of feeding at much lower temperatures on carbon dioxide.
With other genetic manipulations of this new strain, Adams and his colleagues hope to create a version that generates, as a byproduct, useful industrial products -- including fuel -- from carbon dioxide.