Scientifically, the new function of vanadium nitrogenase is a "profound discovery," said Jonas Peters, a scientist at Cal Tech who said he nearly leapt from his chair when the results were announced at a recent conference.
The new research could have some very important industrial applications, Peters said.
"Obviously this could lead to new ways to create synthetic liquid fuels if we can make longer carbon-carbon chains," said Ribbe.
The new enzyme can only make two and three carbon chains, not the longer strands that make up liquid gasoline. However, Ribbe thinks he can modify the enzyme so it could produce gasoline.
If perfected, the technique could lead to cars partially powered on their own fumes. Even further into the future, vehicles could even draw fuel from the air itself.
That perfection won't happen anytime soon, say both Ribbe and Peters.
"It's very, very difficult," to extract the vanadium nitrogenase, said Ribbe.
Scientists have known about this enzyme for a long time because of its importance in agriculture. They even isolated the genes that encode for vanadium nitrogenase more than 20 years ago, which opens the door to genetic engineers and synthetic biologists.