A bacterium best known for closing hospitals and schools is being hailed as a potential ally in the fight against climate change, after successful experiments at the University of Dundee.

Despite its sinister reputation for causing disease and food poisoning, e-coli is already widely used in biotech and microbiology.

Now scientists at Dundee’s Institute for Life Sciences have discovered that it can be used to capture carbon dioxide – with immediate potential for reducing the carbon impact of many industries, and a longer term hope that it could be put to work in reducing damaging CO2 emissions from heavier industries such as steel production.


How Dundee team reversed e-coli bacteria's ability to turn acid into gases to help fight climate change

In a paper outlining the discovery, researchers describe e-coli as an “industrial workhorse organism” which could revolutionise carbon capture.

Lead researcher Professor Frank Sargant, and colleagues at Dundee have found a way to exploit the ability of e-coli to convert carbon dioxide in the presence of hydrogen, capturing the carbon in the form of formic acid.

The acid byproduct itself has a number of industrial uses – and is widely used as a de-icer at airports and airfields, in rubber manufacture as well as in fuel cells, although this results in the re-creation of carbon dioxide.

The technique has the potential to form a biological alternative to costly and controversial proposals such as ‘burying’ carbon dioxide underground or in the oceans, researchers claim.

Ultimately, microbial “cell factories” could be used to clean up the output of industrial processes which create the carbon dioxide which can contribute to global warming.

Professor Sargant said that the research was yet to be commercialised – although his team has been working with local industry partners Sasol UK and Ingenza Ltd. He admitted it had huge potential, although he said he was not motivated by financial gain.

“There are lots of different solutions being proposed for carbon capture, but this is right up there with them as something that is actually quite practical,” he said. “It is going in the right direction. Carbon capture is a controversial area, and engineers have come up with plans to bury CO2 underground. The idea has support but also has a lot of people worried. This could be a significant alternative.”

READ MORE: How Dundee team reversed e-coli bacteria's ability to turn acid into gases to help fight climate change

The method could already be used in a number of bio-based industries, Mr Sargant suggests, such as brewing or the artificial manufacture of insulin, which produce CO2 as a byproduct.

E-coli has been well researched for decades and scientists know how to handle it, Mr Sargant says. “It would be relatively straightforward to bolt on this system and capture the carbon as it is being produced.”

For more heavy industrial processes, which also produce carbon monoxide, there is a problem because the second gas can kill the bacterium before it can do its work. But the team believe this can be overcome, as can doubts over the use of hydrogen, which itself is created using a process which creates carbon dioxide.

READ MORE: How Dundee team reversed e-coli bacteria's ability to turn acid into gases to help fight climate change

Mr Sargant believes the bug could in that way help tackle one of humanity’s greatest challenges. “The whole field needs scientists to keep coming back with new ideas and testing the water,” he said. “We’ve got the technology. Maybe we should be using it.”

Dr Geoff Wood, Fellow in International Energy Law and Policy at Stirling Law School, said the research was a "possibly exciting development" for smaller-scale applications, but he had doubts about its prospects for larger scale  CO2 removal. He said there were questions about the amount of the energy needed for the process and added: "Even if possible, the UK produces over 400 million tonnes of CO2 annually."

Previous optimism about carbon capture techniques has turned out to be misplaced, he said. "Regarding Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), economic questions have seen countries like the UK and Norway shelving projects and plans."