Companies Developing Modified Plant Varieties as Improved Biofuel Feedstocks (Part 3)

The following are brief profiles of companies that are developing engineered or modified plant varieties for the production of biofuels, that were listed in Part 1 of this blog entry. The profiles are presented in alphabetical order by company name, with 10 companies profiled here following the initial 10 profiles in Part 2 of this entry. These profiles have been adapted or excerpted from company websites and/or other publicly available information, and I don’t assume any liability for the accuracy, comprehensiveness or use of the information. 

FuturaGene PLC (the FGN Group) is a leader in plant genetic research and development for global biofuel, forestry and agricultural markets. The Group was formed by the merger of FGN PLC with CBD Technologies and has integrated the abiotic stress platform with the yield enhancement and processability technology from these entities into a powerful new package for the enhancement of biofuel, forestry and agricultural crops. The FGN Group has strategic agreements with leading commercial companies in the forestry and agricultural sectors around the world and continues to actively partner its technologies. The Group has a strong and growing intellectual property portfolio that addresses environmental stresses in plants such as salinity, drought, cold, and heat and protects its developments on the modification of plant cell walls to enhance plant growth rates, yield and processability of plant fiber. FuturaGene technologies, by allowing plants to grow on marginal lands and to produce more usable fiber for industry, are a major contributor to ensuring food security and enhancing the sustainability of agriculture, forest product and biofuel production. 

FuturaGene’s biofuel program is focused on renewable feedstocks with enhanced yields and processability and which are environmentally sustainable. FuturaGene technology can be used to create biofuel feedstock with increased biomass, shorter crop cycles and improved cellulose accessibility and processability for use in biofuel. FuturaGene’s technology is suitable for a large range of cellulosic biomass crops such as switchgrass, Miscanthus, hybrid poplar and willow which are being developed as biofuel crops. The research approach involves manipulation of genes such as cbd and cel1, which encode cell wall polysaccharide modifying enzymes, so as to change the composition of the plant cell wall. These polysaccharides dissolve in preprocessing of cellulosic biomass, allowing enhanced penetration of  chemicals and enzymes to the cellulose and hemicellulose fractions, thus increasing the efficiency of deconstruction for bioethanol production. 

Infinite Enzymes is generating an improved system of producing commercially available enzymes for converting cellulosic biomass to ethanol and other biobased products using a plant biotechnology platform for manufacturing. The technology utilizes the transgenic maize production system—producing enzymes in the embryo, or germ, of the corn seed. The starch in the endosperm is available to be converted to ethanol, allowing dual utilization of the crop that is being grown for ethanol and additionally the enzymes—enabling very inexpensive enzyme production.  The method combines a propriety transgenic plant-based production system and an integrated agribusiness logistics model which complements the current corn-to-ethanol industry. 

The global demand for biofuels is increasing rapidly and 2nd generation processes using cellulose from trees, corn stalks, rice straw and other sources will be the preferred feedstock. The Infinite Enzymes’ products provide the necessary ingredients to convert crops into fuels and other valuable chemicals. Infinite Enzymes is also involved in producing other enzymes in transgenic plants, as well as commercializing other biobased products technologies.

The primary expression system results in the production of enzymes in transgenic maize kernels. Maize seed is an excellent system in which to produce proteins for industrial applications. Seed provides a stable environment for the protein—over millennia the seed has evolved mechanisms to stably store proteins for later use by the germinating embryo. Processing costs can be kept to a minimum in a commodity crop like maize, allowing inexpensive recovery of various fractions of the grain. One of the major advantages of using the embryo (germ) instead of the endosperm to produce industrial proteins, particularly cellulases, is that the endosperm starch can be separated from the embryo and converted into ethanol. Thus, if the major use of the crop is for ethanol anyway, the production of the germ is a by-product, making the enzyme in the germ virtually free. The oil can be used in food/feed or biodiesel applications, creating another co-product. 

The first target products are cellulases for converting plant biomass into sugars for fermentation into ethanol or other biobased products. The cellulases are the most expensive technology still required for the biomass-to-ethanol process. The transgenic corn seed system is the most cost-effective and volume-permissive system available. Each of the required cellulases for biomass conversion are produced as single activities—endo and exo-cellulases, with high accumulation and genetic stability.  Infinite Enzymes received several permits from the USDA’s Biotechnology Regulatory Services in 2008 and 2009 for field tests in Illinois, Arkansas and Puerto Rico of transgenic corn expressing a cellulase. 

Kaiima is  a  next  generation  seed  and  breeding  company.    The company uses its CGM™ technology to develop new non-GMO crops with dramatically improved productivity and improved land and water-use efficiencies. Use of these new high-performance varieties and thoughtful agricultural practices can enable farmers all over the world to generate more food and more energy while sustaining land and water resources. 

Kaiima’s CGM™ (Clean Genomic Multiplication) technology is a non-transgenic biotechnology platform developed in 2002 that induces clean polyploidy in plants (i.e., multiplying the number of chromosomes found in the plant). It includes a proprietary set of protocols and methods that direct the active chemicals used in the genome-multiplication process away from the sensitive DNA, which stays unharmed, unlike past methods for inducing polyploidy, thus keeping the plant fertile and genetically stable. The company claims that its technology provides advantages including higher plant yield, greater biomass accumulation, enhanced photosynthesis and other features. 

Kaiima is using CGM™ and other advanced and proprietary genomic-based breeding technologies to develop high-yielding energy crops for the production of biodiesel, bioethanol, and biomass energy. The biodiesel strategy involves breeding castor varieties that can yield up to 10 tons of seeds (or 5 tons of oil) per hectare per year compared to the global average of between 1-1.5 tons of seeds. The company expects that these high yields, will make fuel from castor we economically competitive with the price of petroleum.  The company is also collaborating with the prominent rapeseed program at the Anhui Academy of Agriculture in China to increase the yield of their market-leading rapeseed by several tens of percents, for use as a feedstock for biodiesel. Kaiima has also started its own research programs to develop high-yielding varieties of sugarcane for ethanol and eucalyptus for biomass energy production. 

Medicago, Inc. is a biotechnology company focused on developing highly effective and affordable vaccines based on proprietary manufacturing technologies using transient gene expression in plants.  In October 2009, the company announced that it had been awarded a proof of concept contract by the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command laboratory specifically the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (“ECBC”) Research & Technology Directorate, to work with ECBC to investigate the affordable production of industrial enzymes in the field of biofuels. This new project builds on Medicago’s proprietary plant-based manufacturing platform and its potential for applications beyond the biological drug market. The company believes that the high cost of enzymes is a major hurdle in the production of biofuels using biomass and that its manufacturing platform could be suitable for the production of affordable enzymes. 

Mendel Biotechnology, Inc. is an innovative biotechnology company serving large agricultural companies with new genetic and chemical solutions and developing novels seeds to serve the bioenergy industry.   Mendel Biotechnology’s vision is that the company’s knowledge about regulation of plant gene and pathway function will enable accelerated improvement in plant varieties, and the delivery of associated services, to meet global agricultural and energy production needs. 

Mendel is focusing on a class of genes encoding transcription factors, which act as master regulators of gene networks. Over a period of approximately five years, Mendel scientists identified essentially all of the transcription factor genes from a model plant species (Arabidopsis thaliana) and systematically analyzed the function of each of the encoded proteins by producing experimental plants that had increased or decreased amounts of the target protein, and assaying for traits such as  abiotic stress tolerance, disease resistance, and metabolic composition. These initial efforts have resulted in a large number of novel discoveries about the function of key transcription factors, their molecular mode of action, and the local genetic networks that they regulate, and this knowledge has enabled Mendel to develop both genetic and chemical approaches to deliver valuable traits to target crops. 

Mendel entered into a strategic long-term collaboration with BP in May 2007 for the development of its BioEnergy Seeds and Feedstocks business. The focus of the collaboration is the development and commercialization of seed products, both conventional and biotech varieties, for dedicated energy crops such as Miscanthus and switchgrass, to serve the emerging 2nd generation biofuels industry both in the United States and abroad. Under this arrangement, Mendel will own the technology developed through the collaboration, and will own and operate the seed and feedstock business, while BP receives royalties on seed sales. 

Mendel’s BioEnergy Seeds (MBS) division is developing new varieties of very productive, non-food energy grasses to enable the delivery of large scale supplies of high value biomass feedstocks produced on marginal and under-utilized lands in a highly sustainable manner. Mendel’s product portfolio includes the largest research and development program in the world focused on the most promising perennial grass species, Miscanthus.  C4 perennial grasses, and, particularly Miscanthus, can collect and store that energy more efficiently than any other system yet devised. Domestication of commercial Miscanthus varieties in the US, combined with continued advances in fuel conversion technologies is an integral component of the country’s renewable energy solution. Mendel is applying its validated trait technology and advanced breeding techniques to develop superior, proprietary Miscanthus varieties and other energy crop products. Additional species in development include high-biomass sorghum through Mendel’s collaboration with MMR Genetics and Richardson Seeds and “Miscanes”. 

Metabolix, Inc. is developing and commercializing sustainable biological solutions for the world’s needs in plastics, chemicals, and energy with unequaled environmental benefits. Known for its Mirel brand of bioplastics, produced in genetically modified microorganisms and plants, Metabolix is also developing proprietary technology that can produce energy from switchgrass, oilseeds, sugarcane and other crops. 

Metabolix has developed considerable expertise in genetic pathway engineering in switchgrass. Switchgrass is a commercially and ecologically attractive, non-food energy crop that is indigenous to North America and is generally considered to be a leading candidate for cellulose-derived production of ethanol and other biofuels. In 2001, Metabolix was awarded a $15 million Industries of the Future cost-shared grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to help fund the development of a biomass biorefinery based on switchgrass. The goal of this five-year program was to produce bioplastic in green tissue plants and, after polymer extraction, use the residual plant biomass for energy generation. The combined polymer and energy production from a biomass biorefinery would reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil imports for use in materials feedstock and processing. 

Metabolix also has a collaboration with the Australian Cooperative Research Centre for genetic pathway engineering in sugarcane for co-production of products In February 2008, Metabolix established a strategic research collaboration with the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center to develop an advanced industrial oilseed crop for co-production of bioplastics along with energy. 

Rahan Meristem is an Israeli company with more than 30 years experience in plant propagation and biotechnology, and in the laboratory production of tissue culture plants. In January 2010, the company was reported to have announced its plans to engage in developing protocols for the mass propagation and genetic transformation of castor beans and Jatropha to produce biodiesel. Genetic engineering  can be used to increase plant oil yield, enhance the oxidative stability of the oil, render the plants resistant to biotic and abiotic stress factors, and control plant height for ease of mechanical harvesting. The company has reportedly isolated several genes from unicellular algae that confer resistance to drought and salinity, which it said are expected to greatly improve the efficacy of the culture of biodiesel crops in low rainfall climates. The company’s scientific director was quoted as saying that their main goal is to develop and bring to market transgenic Jatropha and castor bean clones that confer resistance to salinity and drought. 

SG Biofuels is a plant oil company specializing in the development of Jatropha as a low cost, sustainably produced oil that can be used for a variety of bio-based materials including biodiesel and feedstock substitutes for the petrochemical and jet fuel industries. SG Biofuels brings together a world-class leadership team of executive management, energy, biotechnology and agribusiness veterans with a proven track record developing sustainable, for-profit projects in Latin America. The executive team and advisory board include a broad base of successful leaders in technology, energy, government, petrochemical, biotechnology and agriculture. 

SG Biofuels has established a Jatropha Genetic Resource Center (GRC) to further accelerate profitable, large-scale production of Jatropha as a low-cost, sustainable source of feedstock for biofuel. With research sites in San Diego and several Latin American countries, SG Biofuels says that it possesses the largest, most genetically diverse library of Jatropha genetic material in the world. The GRC enables the company’s efforts to drive genetic improvements that will enhance yield, improve agronomic practices and broaden the effective growing range of this promising subtropical crop. This germplasm foundation in combination with modern biotechnological advances and practices is providing the platform for significant improvements in this renewable fuel crop. The company’s scientific team has already identified many strains with promising characteristics and SG Biofuels has begun evaluating thousands of diverse accessions of Jatropha obtained from a range of geographical and climatic conditions. Through additional genetic improvements and breeding, a range of opportunities exist to improve Jatropha’s oil yield and develop improved strains, including those that can further enhance production in colder climates of the United States and other nations. 

In January 2010,  SG Biofuels announced a strategic alliance with Life Technologies Corporation, a leading supplier of products for the life science research market, to advance the development of Jatropha as a sustainable biofuel. The alliance brings together SG Biofuels’ Genetic Resource Center with the advanced biotechnology and synthetic biology tools of Life Technologies. The partnership will initially include sequencing the Jatropha curcas genome, allowing for the rapid introduction of new traits targeted toward increasing the yield of the oil-producing plant. Life Technologies will also become a strategic partner in SG Biofuels. 

In February 2010, SG Biofuels introduced JMax 100, the world’s first elite Jatropha cultivar, providing growers and plantation developers with access to the highest yielding and most profitable Jatropha. The company says that JMax 100 increases the profitability of Jatropha to greater than $400 per acre — more than 300 percent above existing commercial varieties. This equates to more than 350 gallons per acre at $1.39 per gallon, enabling the large-scale growth of the nation’s renewable fuel industry and development opportunities for community farmers, plantation developers and renewable energy investors. 

Syngenta is a world-leading, multinational agribusiness company. Its two main commercial areas  are the sale of seeds and crop protection products. The company was formed in 2000 by the merger of the agricultural businesses of Novartis and AstraZeneca, but its roots extend back 250 years to the earliest industrial predecessor companies of these founder companies. Syngenta has now grown into one of the world’s leading companies with more than 25,000 employees in over 90 countries. 

Syngenta’s major activity in biofuels is a line of transgenic corn expressing an engineered thermostable amylase for enhanced ethanol production. This corn variety, which the company refers to as its “output trait corn amylase”, is sold under the brand name Enogen. Originally known by the internal product name “Corn [Maize] event 3272”, this line was developed using recombinant DNA technology to introduce into corn the amy797E gene and the pmi marker gene. The amy797E gene is derived from alpha-amylase genes from three hyperthermophilic microorganisms of the archaeal order Thermococcales, and it encodes a thermostable AMY797E alpha-amylase enzyme which catalyses the hydrolysis of starch by cleaving the internal alpha-1,4-glucosidic bonds into dextrins, maltose and glucose. The pmi gene from Escherichia coli encodes the phosphomannose isomerase (PMI) enzyme, which allows the plant to utilize mannose as a carbon source. This corn variety has been extensively field tested throughout the world, and has been approved for commercial sale in several countries including Canada (but as of this writing not yet in the U.S., where USDA has been considering approval for the past 2-3 years and where some public opposition has emerged). The company says that use of this corn variety will offer ethanol producers a significant cost advantage of between 8 and 15 cents per gallon. 

Targeted Growth, Inc. (TGI) is a crop biotechnology company focused on developing products with enhanced yield and improved quality for the agriculture and energy industries. Founded in 1998, TGI has developed a technology portfolio based on the principle that regulating cell cycle processes can directly and significantly enhance plant yields.  Over the past ten years, TGI has applied modern breeding and biotechnology techniques to a variety of commercial and emerging crops to produce significant yield increases, already validated over multiple years and in large-scale field trials.  TGI has incorporated modern molecular breeding techniques with targeted genetic adaptations and biotechnology for a comprehensive approach to optimizing the characteristics of plants for use in both food and fuel crops.  TGI’s current development programs include enhancements to corn, soybean, canola, rice, wheat, and Camelina, for purposes including providing improved raw materials while reducing input costs; optimizing agricultural crops for biofuel endproducts, and recapturing non-arable and underutilized land for energy solutions.  

The company is using conventional breeding and biotechnology to enhance the suitability of select energy crops for use as fuels, by improving sugar, starch and oil profiles, as well as characteristics of cell wall formation. For ethanol production TGI is focused on corn and sorghum; for biodiesel, soybean, canola, and Camelina. TGI has field tested engineered Camelina and soybean varieties at numerous locations in the U.S. and Canada for the past several years. 

D. Glass Associates, Inc. is a consulting company specializing in several fields of biotechnology. David Glass, Ph.D. is a veteran of nearly thirty years in the biotech industry, with expertise in patents, technology licensing, industrial biotechnology regulatory affairs, and market and technology assessments. This blog provides back-up and expanded content to complement a presentation Dr. Glass made at the EUEC 2010 conference on February 2, 2010 entitled “Prospects for the Use of Genetic Engineering in Biofuel Production.” The slides from that presentation are available at www.slideshare.net/djglass99.

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One thought on “Companies Developing Modified Plant Varieties as Improved Biofuel Feedstocks (Part 3)

  1. Biofuels are fuels that can be done by processing the green oil is emitted by the plant Jatropha. This is a form of awareness on climate change good for the future hopefully

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