Scientists are diligently looking for ways to replace fossil fuels with more sustainable alternatives. And a tiny microbe just might be the answer.

Airplanes can no longer be ignored. They transport people, goods and are an important part of our defence. At the same time, airplanes are incredibly polluting. Civil aviation alone is currently responsible for 2 to 3 percent of global CO2 emissions. Scientists are therefore frantically looking for ways to make airplanes more environmentally friendly. And possibly the solution has now been found.


The reason airplanes are so polluting is because most are still powered by polluting kerosene. But with a view to the future, that cannot always be the case. Such fossil fuels not only run out, during combustion they release greenhouse gases that are harmful to the environment. This contributes to global warming and also leads to health problems.


In the search for a sustainable alternative, researchers investigated a new study to something in nature that produces a lot of energy. When fossil fuels are burned, large amounts of energy are produced. This energy then drives the engine of an airplane. Scientists hypothesized that there must be a way to mimic this in some way in an environmentally friendly way. And in their search, they came across a striking triangular molecule called Jawsamycin – indeed, named after the movie. Jaws† Why triangular? “Triangular carbon chains are capable of storing the greatest amounts of energy,” study researcher Pablo Cruz-Morales told

Known microbe

The researchers found that the energy-rich, triangular-shaped molecule Jawsamycin is produced naturally by a soil microbe belonging to the genus Streptomyces belongs. That happens when these bacteria feed on sugar or amino acids. “When the microbes eat sugar or amino acids, they break them down and convert them into building blocks for carbon bonds,” Cruz-Morales explains.

The well-known bacteria from the genus Streptomyces, which are able to produce triangular molecules that can be used to efficiently make energy-rich biofuels. Image: Pablo Morales-Cruz

Incidentally, these soil bacteria have a familiar face. “They are abundant in the soil,” Cruz-Morales continues. “In addition, they are used for the production of antibiotics and other medicines. Chemists like to study these bacteria.” The researchers do not know why this microbe produces such a strange, triangular molecule. “Maybe for energy storage, or to make its cell membrane resistant to low temperatures,” Cruz-Morales suggests.


The team decided to take the microbe’s trick and mimic the way it produces the triangular molecule. “We were able to copy the genes that code for the process of Jawsamycin formation,” explains Cruz-Morales. “We then stuck this into a laboratory bacterium. In this way we manufactured molecules that contain a lot of energy.”

Rocket ship

According to the researchers, these molecules even contain so much energy that they should be able to power aircraft engines. In addition, they appear to be able to store greater amounts of energy than other biofuels that have already been proposed for aircraft. “It’s so powerful, in fact, that it could launch a rocket into space,” Cruz-Morales said. This means that the researchers have devised a promising way to replace polluting fossil fuels for a clean and sustainable alternative. “If we can scale this up, there will be no more excuses for using oil,” Cruz-Morales said. “It opens up the possibility to become more sustainable.”

“Our clean jet fuel is so powerful it can launch a rocket into space”

Multiple alternatives

Incidentally, the researchers are not the first to propose a promising alternative to fossil fuels. Scientists have already devised a way to make airplanes fly on plasma, a green mustard plant and even plastic waste (which would make short work of two major environmental polluters in one fell swoop). Despite such good ideas, not much has come of it in practice. Most planes are still pumped with polluting fossil fuels.


Whether Cruz-Morales is going to change that? “Unlikely,” he replies when asked. “The biggest problem is that fossil fuels are being subsidized and the global economy is built around it.” Still, the researcher has hope. “This situation won’t last long,” he says. “Public perception and awareness that climate change is deeply disruptive seems to be a good boost for the biggest fossil players and investors. And so we have to be prepared and have alternative solutions ready.”


Incidentally, it may still take a while before the researchers have scaled up their biofuel and it is launched on the market. “I think we’re still in the early stages,” Cruz-Morales says. “But we have shown that we can produce very energy-rich fuels with the help of nature. Now we have to come up with a way to make a lot of fuel efficiently.”

So don’t expect to board an airplane powered by this clean biofuel in a few years’ time. But there seems to be no doubt that changes are on the way. “I hope our research has at least made it clear that our developed chemistry is viable,” Cruz-Morales says. “In addition, I hope it has excited investors and decision-makers concerned about our planet. We are happy to help!”