Fermented products can range anywhere from beer to sourdough bread to soy sauce to ethanol fuels. In the microbial realm of fermentation, the process is fundamentally the same: Microorganisms such as bacteria and yeast metabolize sugars into alcohol. But often, the process can be plagued by a major drawback.
Lactic acid bacteria are a contaminant in the fermentation process that don’t produce alcohol, the desired product. Instead, they produce lactic acid, an unwanted byproduct.
“We start with the contaminant, which is the lactic acid bacteria. Basically it steals sugars from the yeast, and the yeast could use those sugars to make ethanol,” James Steele, a professor of food science at UW-Madison explained.
These bacteria can be combatted in several ways. In the beer industry, hops were a natural solution.
“The ethanol industry has a lot in common with the beer industry … A couple hundred years ago, they came up with hops as being something that’s an antimicrobial,” Steele said. “But hops are extremely expensive.”
Another solution is using antibiotics.
“Some of those antibiotics can make it through the process and end up in a byproduct of ethanol production, which is animal feed,” Steele explained. “Which means that those residues can find their way into the human food supply or form antibiotic resistant bacteria.”
These antibiotic resistant bacteria are a growing concern for the general public. They can cause serious human disease, and since they have bred to be resistant to antibiotics, there isn’t really a good way to combat them.
“They come in a large part from use and misuse of antibiotics by the medical community,” Steele expressed. “But they also come from the use and misuse of antibiotics in the agricultural industry. We’d like to see different alternatives to the use of antibiotics in the agricultural industry.”
Steele’s research is offering these alternatives. Through genetic engineering, Steele is turning lactic acid bacteria from an issue to a solution. According to Steele, his team is reengineering that contaminant to now make ethanol rather than lactic acid. So not only do these genetically engineered bacteria no longer produce lactic acid, they produce additional alcohol.
So successful are these new bacteria that Steele has secured two patents on the research.
With these patents and the help of several investors that assist startups, Steele was able to found his business, Lactic Solutions. Ethanol plants can look to Steele’s company to procure his modified bacteria and improve efficiency in their ethanol production.
Even in light of his personal business success, Steele is most excited by the prospects of making a significant contribution to the agriculture industry through his research.