For James Steele, moving from the small fermenters where microbes make cheese, wine, and beer to the multimillion-gallon tanks where corn is converted to ethanol was a natural progression.
Steele, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Winder-Bascom professor of food science, specializes in food, beverage, and biofuel fermentation. Understanding how bacteria and yeast convert biomass into products has been his stock-in-trade for more than 30 years.
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The fermentation of beer and wine can be plagued by contamination with lactic acid bacteria, which make lactic acid rather than alcohol. The same problem affects the ethanol industry.
Steele’s new company, Lactic Solutions, is advancing a judo-like remedy: using genetic engineering to transform enemy into friend. Instead of killing lactic acid bacteria with antibiotics, he’s spliced in genes for ethanol production so these organisms produce ethanol, not lactic acid.
“We are taking the problem and trying to turn it into a solution,” Steele says. The company will sell bags of bacteria to the ethanol industry to be added to the fermenter alongside the yeast that presently makes ethanol.