An enzyme found in the roots of the soybean plant could soon have cars running on fumes — literally. Vanadium nitrogenase, a bacterial enzyme that usually converts atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, can also convert carbon monoxide into propane gas, according to scientists at the University of California Irvine. Although their research is still in its nascent stages, this breakthrough discovery could pave the way to producing cost-efficient fuel — even gasoline — from thin air, says Markus Ribbe, an associate professor of molecular biology and co-author of a study that appeared in the August issue of Science.

soybean root (Photo by USDA)

Ribbe and his colleagues isolated the enzyme from Azotobacter vinelandii, a common soil bacterium commonly found around the roots of nitrogen-fixing plants like soybeans. Removed from its familiar nitrogen-oxygen environment and fed a diet of carbon dioxide, the enzyme turned the industrial byproduct into short chains of carbon two and three atoms long. A three-carbon chain is commonly known as propane, the blue-flamed gas used in stoves and camping grills across the country.

The potential applications for this new research are staggering. “Obviously this could lead to new ways to create synthetic liquid fuels if we can make longer carbon-carbon chains,” Ribbe tells Discovery News. With some extra tinkering, the enzyme could eventually be modified to produce gasoline, he adds.

Although we may someday face a reality where vehicle are powered by their own fumes or the surrounding air, don’t hold your breath for it to happen any time soon. “It’s very, very difficult,” to extract the vanadium nitrogenase, Ribbe says.

Via PopSci