Companies Developing Modified Microorganisms for Ethanol Production (part 2)

The following are brief profiles of companies that are developing engineered or modified microorganisms for the production of ethanol. These profiles have been adapted or excerpted from company websites and/or other publicly available information, and I’m not responsible for the accuracy, comprehensiveness or use of the information.

BioEnergy International, LLC is a privately-held company using genetically modified microorganisms to develop and commercialize next generation biorefineries for the production of high-value bio-based chemicals and fuels from renewable feedstock. BioEnergy has developed cellulosic technology capable of economically converting cellulosic feedstocks into fermentable sugars, which are used by the company’s multi-product biorefinery, that will convert low-cost sugars into targeted, high value renewable biochemicals and biofuels, including ethanol and other fuels. In 2009, BioEnergy announced the formation of Myriant Technologies LLC to incorporate all of its biobased chemicals business and intellectual property including development of polylactic acid and other chemicals . BioEnergy is building a 110Mgpy biorefinery at the Clearfield Technology Park in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania, and has begun work on a larger facility in Lake Providence, Louisiana.   

DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol, LLC (DDCE) is developing end-to-end production solutions for cellulosic ethanol. DDCE was formed in 2008 as a joint venture of DuPont, an international leader of chemical, materials, and energy science since the early 1800’s; and Danisco’s Genencor division which since 1982 has been one of the world’s leaders in industrial biotechnology. DDCE combines DuPont’s expertise in biorefinery design and engineering, pretreatment chemistry, and mixed-sugar fermentation with Genencor’s expertise in biomass enzymes and low-cost biocatalyst production. The company says that its  integrated solution will include everything necessary for biomass feedstock handling and preprocessing, pretreatment, onsite biocatalyst production, enzyme hydrolysis, mixed sugar fermentation and advanced downstream separation of fuel grade ethanol. 

In October 2008, DDCE broke ground on a demonstration plant in Vonore, Tennessee, which began operations in January 2010. The plant is expected to have a capacity of 250,000 gallons of cellulosic ethanol annually using corncobs and switchgrass as feedstock DDCE has also entered into a deal with Genera Energy, LLC in TN to supply switchgrass as a feedstock for the demonstration plant. 

Green Tech America, Inc. (GTA) is developing and commercializing an innovative yeast-based cellulosic ethanol technology that was pioneered by Dr. Nancy Ho at Purdue University. The company’s business model is to optimize the performance of Dr. Ho’s Cellulosic Ethanol Yeast Technology, to establish what they call a “blueprint” for cellulosic ethanol production, for licensing to other ethanol producers. Dr. Ho’s research has focused on the use of a three-gene cassette encoding enzymes that catalyze the metabolism of xylose: by transforming these genes into ethanol-fermenting yeast strains, the goal is to create high performing strains that can co-ferment glucose, xylose and perhaps other sugars to ethanol. According to the company’s website, much of the recent research has focused on finding superior yeast strains which could be engineered for this purpose. GTA will also work with Purdue to engineer the yeast to produce important industrial products that can be produced alone or co-produced during ethanol production, using both grain and cellulosic biomass as feedstocks. 

Glycos Biotechnologies, Inc. is using biotechnology to produce high-value fuels and chemicals from what it calls disadvantaged but sustainable feedstocks. The Company’s portfolio of microorganisms produce a variety of high-value chemicals from carbon sources contained in a diverse set of feedstocks and co-products, such as glycerin, gums, fatty acids and crude extracts from animal and plant sources, that are traditionally considered low value or underutilized. The company’s technology also works equally well with oil from algal sources; with the addition of biodiesel glycerin these diversified materials align well with our non-foodstuffs feedstock – microorganism development strategy. 

GlycosBio has discovered a biological process to convert feedstocks that contain glycerin, such as the thin stillage or condensed syrup from the existing ethanol production process that can immediately be leveraged to provide existing ethanol plants access to advance ethanol as well an ability to create new profit streams from the glycerin embedded in the existing thin stillage located at the plant. When working with a carbon source such as glycerin, the company engineers metabolic pathways using non-pathogenic microorganisms, creating microbial strains that are very efficient in converting glycerin to chemicals like ethanol, succinic acid, propanediols, and lactates. These strains may be further improved using additional selective pressure.     

Mascoma Corporation has aggressively pursued the development of Consolidated Bioprocessing (CBP) technology across a range of cellulosic feedstocks. In nature, there are few strains of yeast or bacteria capable of directly and efficiently producing ethanol from cellulosic biomass. Mascoma’s technology uses yeast and bacteria that are engineered to produce large quantities of the enzymes necessary to break down the cellulose and ferment the resulting sugars into ethanol. Combining these two steps (enzymatic digestion and fermentation) significantly reduces costs by eliminating the need for enzyme produced in a separate refinery.  In May 2009, Mascoma announced several research successes, including achieving production of nearly 6% wt/vol ethanol by an engineered thermophilic microorganism; the metabolic engineering of a cellulose-fermenting thermophile, Clostridium thermocellum, leading to reduced production of unwanted byproducts; and a 3,000-fold increase in cellulase expression by a cellulytic yeast strain. 

In December 2008, Mascoma began creating ethanol from cellulosic biomass with positive results at its demonstration facility in Rome, New York. The company, in collaboration with its commercialization subsidiary Frontier Renewable Resources, is in the process of financing its first full-scale ethanol facility in Kinross, Michigan, with funding assistance from the State of Michigan. The company plans to break ground on that facility during the first half of 2010. 

Mascoma has corporate partnerships with Marathon Oil Company and General Motors Corporation,  and recently entered into a feedstock processing and lignin supply agreement with Chevron Technology Ventures (CTV), a division of Chevron U.S.A., Inc. 

Microbiogen Australia Pty Ltd. uses advanced breeding and genetic techniques to generate a range of non-genetically-modified yeast strains for industrial purposes.  The company’s purely non-GM approach is based on the observation that natural strains of S. cerevisiae can produce microscopic colonies using xylose as a sole carbon source, provided they can be incubated for long enough periods (1-2 months). This observation directly contradicts established scientific dogma that Saccharomyces cerevisiae cannot grow at all on xylose, and the company has used natural breeding strategies to generate new strains of yeast with dramatically improved ability to grow on xylose. Using these strategies, doubling times of yeast have been reduced from over 140 hours to approximately three hours which is only modestly more than the doubling time on the preferred sugar glucose. These strains have potential applications in a number of areas including ethanol production, high quality animal feed, baking, yeast extracts, enzymes, antioxidants, and waste stream management amongst others. The yeasts developed by Microbiogen have basic industrial characteristics not found in other organisms, such as ethanol tolerance, lack of nutrient requirements, acid tolerance, immunity to viral infection, and high quality protein.  

In September 2009, Microbiogen announced a non-exclusive collaboration agreement with PureVision, an American renewable technology developer, under which Microbiogen’s non-GMO yeast organism will be utilized by PureVision’s cellulosic biorefinery and fractionation technology to produce both biofuels and protein products (food and feed) from biomass. 

According to its website, Promethegen Corporation is a biotechnology company using metabolic engineering to develop technologies for the production of biofuels and chemicals from renewable resources. Specifically, the company has licensed a portfolio of patents developed at MIT and elsewhere, to use metabolic engineering to allow greater amounts of biomass to be turned into ethanol or biodiesel fuel, while reducing waste, As reported in the trade press, Promethegen’s approach includes using genetically altered microbes that enhance the biomass fermentation-to-fuel process. The targeted biomass can be composed of a wide variety of organic matter, such as sugar cane or corn, cellulose or wood waste.  The company’s business model includes selling both the microbe technology and processes connected with the conversion, with the goal of selling the company’s highly productive microbes and process improvements to the existing ethanol and biodiesel production plants instead of trying to build its own facilities. 

Qteros is developing cellulosic ethanol technology in a one-step, biomass-to-ethanol conversion process using a unique microorganism called the Q Microbe™.  The company’s history dates back to 1996, when University of Massachusetts microbiologist Dr. Susan Leschine and her lab assistant, Tom Warnick, discovered a novel microbial strain near the Quabbin Reservoir in Western Massachusetts, later named Clostridium phytofermentans,  as a novel microbial species. Known today as Q Microbe, this species is reportedly able to digest all types of cellulose and the ability to convert that cellulose directly into ethanol. The Q Microbe can overcome the recalcitrance of cellulose to release the sugars deep within the plant cell wall, enabling the company’s proprietary Complete Cellulosic Conversion (C3) process to simplify and dramatically improve the economics of the equation. The Qteros technology eliminates the need for a separate enzymatic breakdown step that also broadens pretreatment options. The Q Microbe breaks down a wide variety of plant materials, including corn residues, cane bagasse, woody biomass, cellulose waste, and more, degrading these feedstocks to create C5 and C6 sugars which are then fermented into ethanol. The microbe can be engineered to optimize ethanol output from a specific plant material, increasing net energy yield for the whole system. 

In October 2009, the company broke ground on a $3.2 million pilot plant that will be located in Chicopee, Massachusetts. Although the company’s initial commercial plans involve only the use of the naturally-occurring Q Microbe, it has recently reported that it is beginning to investigate the use of biotechnology to enhance the activity of this strain. 

TMO Renewables Limited is a company that uses thermophilic (literally heat-loving) organisms for ethanol production. In fact, the company’s name, TMO, stands for “thermophilic micro organism” – the bacterial ethanologen at the core of the company’s revolutionary process. This organism can exist at high temperatures and can digest a wide range of feedstocks very quickly. TMO’s process exploits these traits to produce ethanol from any cellulose-based material,  in a highly-economical way that the company says is more-or-less carbon neutral, and which enables more efficient use of agricultural land. 

The company anticipates that its technology will have commercial applicability in two distinct stages. The immediate application of the technology would be to retrofit it onto an existing corn ethanol plant, to significantly increase the producer’s margin because the process will require a wet feedstock, which eliminates drying costs of the feedstock. The second phase of commercial applicability will come from the use of the company’s microbial strains with a whole range of different cellulosic feedstocks – most notably, perhaps, to domestic waste (paper, food) and to leftovers from agriculture and industry. These could include the straw from cereal crops, the burning of which is now largely prohibited in Europe. 

Verenium Corporation, formed in 2007 by the merger of Diversa and Celunol, is using proprietary and unique microorganisms to ferment cellulose and hemicellulose from multiple feedstocks into ethanol. Verenium’s technology is based on the metabolic engineering of microorganisms  and the company has a set of genetically engineered strains of bacteria that are capable of fermenting essentially all of the sugars released from many types of cellulosic biomass into ethanol. Two of these strains are believed to be the first genetically modified microorganisms to have been reviewed and cleared for commercial ethanol production by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the agency’s biotechnology rules. Much of the company’s original work on cellulose-degrading microorganisms was based on the research of Dr. Lonnie Ingram of the University of Florida, which the company has licensed from the university. The Company possesses integrated, end-to-end capabilities in pre-treatment, novel enzyme development, fermentation, engineering, and project development and is moving rapidly to commercialize its proprietary technology for the production of cellulosic ethanol from a wide array of feedstocks, including sugarcane bagasse, dedicated energy crops, agricultural waste, and wood products. Verenium is also pursuing large-scale industrial opportunities for products derived from the production of low-cost, biomass-derived sugars. 

Verenium operates one of the nation’s first cellulosic ethanol pilot plants, an R&D facility, in Jennings, Louisiana and is now optimizing its 1.4 million-gallon-per-year demonstration-scale facility. Verenium has formed a 50-50 joint venture with British Petroleum to develop and commercialize cellulosic ethanol from nonfood feedstocks in the United States, which is now operating under the name Vercipia Biofuels. In addition, the Company’s process technology has been licensed by Tokyo-based Marubeni Corp. and Tsukishima Kikai Co., LTD and has been incorporated into BioEthanol Japan’s 1.4 million liter-per-year cellulosic ethanol plant in Osaka, Japan — the world’s first commercial-scale plant to produce cellulosic ethanol from wood construction waste.

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 http://www.slideshare.net/djglass99.

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