By adding a sensor to Escherichia coli, University of California, Berkeley's Jay Keasling and his colleagues improved the ability of the bacteria to make biofuel. As Technology Review notes, when biofuel precursors — fatty acids and ethanol — are out of proportion in the bacteria, production is not very efficient. The sensor reacts to fatty acid levels in the bacteria to balance them out. "This 'self-awareness' increased the amount of biodiesel made by the bacteria to 28 percent of theoretical maximum, a threefold increase over the previously reported strain," Tech Review adds.
As the researchers say in Nature Biotechnology, "it should one day be possible to dynamically regulate any metabolic pathway … to make microbial production of commodity chemicals and fuels economically viable."