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Airdate: Jul 19, 2010
Scientist: Richard Gross

Microbe Fermentation

Microbe Fermentation
With a little coaxing, microbes can be trained to create a variety of useful materials.

RG: "Each fermenter can be fed independently. So if this fermenter wants to have spinach, and this one wants tomato, and that one wants cabbage they can each have whatever they want."

JM: So if you're a fermenter, does that mean you're a picky eater? Well, not exactly. I'm Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet. Richard Gross is a professor of chemistry at Polytechnic Institute of New York University. By using incubator-like devices called fermenters, he gets microbes to convert vegetable matter into a variety of materials. Feed the microbes different vegetables and you get them to make all sorts of useful stuff.

RG: "Well, we can test how well they'll convert the spinach, the tomato, and the cabbage to the different products we want to make - all at one time. And while it's making it, the computer is taking down all the information and telling us how well the organism, the microbe is doing at its job. One thing that we've been making with this is the bio-cleaner, the microbe that makes the molecule or the chemical that can clean, for example, oil spills. And another thing that we've been using these fermenters for is to make the building block that then we can turn into a plastic that can bio-degrade when we put it in the soil."

JM: By changing the microbes' DNA, scientists can get them to ferment up some new and improved materials.

RG: "We have to remember that microbes really don't care what we want and what we need. So we're teaching them to help us. And they have to make things a little bit differently if it's going to work for us, instead of just working for them."

Pulse of the Planet is made possible by the National Science Foundation. Check out some of our new seasonal ringtones at pulseplanet.com. I'm Jim Metzner.