Companies Developing Modified Plant Varieties as Improved Biofuel Feedstocks (Part 1)

These next entries of the blog will discuss the companies that are using biotechnology to create improved varieties of the plant species that are, or are proposed to be, used as feedstocks for creation of ethanol or other biofuels. As described in an earlier entry of the blog, the focus of much of these efforts is to use recombinant DNA genetic engineering techniques to introduce into plants certain genes encoding enzymes that are needed for the breakdown of the complex carbohydrates found in cellulosic feedstocks, with the goal of cutting processing costs by having these enzymes inherently present in the biomass used for fuel production. Other technical strategies involving genetically engineered (“transgenic”) plants are also being pursued, for example to increase plant growth rates or possibly to engineer into these species the same sorts of insect or herbicide resistance that are now common in food crops. There are also several companies planning to use genetically modified plants as the production platform to manufacture industrial enzymes for use in preprocessing feedstocks for cellulosic fuel manufacture. However, some of the companies profiled in this installment of the blog are not creating transgenic plants per se, but are using other advanced biotechnology techniques to make traditional plant breeding activities more predictable and more efficient. 

Among the notable things about the companies listed below is how many of them have entered the biofuel arena from other sectors of the plant biotechnology industry. Included here are agbiotech or plant genomics companies (e.g. Chromatin, Mendel Biotechnology), seed companies like Syngenta, the forestry biotechnology leader Arborgen, a company originally dedicated to phytoremediation (Edenspace), and at least two companies using plants as the manufacturing platform for high-value commercial products (Medicago, whose main business in producing vaccines in plants, and Metabolix, a leader in bio-based production of precursors used to create biodegradable plastics). Only a relative handful of the companies profiled were started specifically to address biofuel markets, as opposed to the microbial and algal sectors, where most of the small-company players were founded as biofuel companies. However, this can be seen as a positive development for this sector of the biofuels industry, in that these “diversifying” companies bring considerable expertise in plant biotechnology, plant breeding, and the commercial aspects of the seed business, which will no doubt be beneficial as companies begin to commercialize the specialized “energy crops” they are developing.  

It is harder to predict the chances for success of the companies in this sector of the industry, since in a way they are creating a brand-new market. Current biomass-based production of ethanol or other fuels typically relies on plant species already grown and harvested for food or other purposes, or in some cases uses cellulosic waste products. The business model that companies can develop and sell plant varieties (or seeds) to be grown in a dedicated manner solely for use in fuel production is one that is just beginning to be utilized, by the small number of companies that have already introduced classically-bred, nontransgenic plant lines tailored for biofuel use (for example, high-yielding forage sorghum varieties developed by Edenspace, new Camelina varieties introduced by Great Plains Oil and Exploration,  and Jatropha lines introduced by SG Biofuels). And some of these companies are developing plant species that have never been used and sold in commercial agriculture to any significant extent (e.g. switchgrass, Miscanthus).  

So commercial success may require addressing and solving issues that have not previously been faced in the biofuel industry. For the most part, these are issues that have been faced in the agbiotech industry with some success, including the need to convince farmers to buy and grow plant varieties that, once harvested, would need to be segregated from other crops to be sold to entirely different buyers at higher value than the typical commodity crop. This point is critical, because profit margins in the seed business are typically small, and commercial success will likely depend on these companies’ abilities to sell seed for these varieties at a premium, in the expectation that the grower will recoup his/her costs in the greater selling price the energy crop will provide. Another challenge that some companies may face is how to adequately protect intellectual property. In commercial agriculture today, seed for many important crop plants is sold as hybrids, and because hybrids don’t breed true, farmers cannot save seeds from one year’s crop to plant the next year, and they instead must go back to the seed company to buy seed each year. For those crops not typically sold as hybrids, such as soybeans, farmers have traditionally been able to save seed from one year’s crop to plant the next year, and this has led to legal battles between such “seed-saving” farmers and the seed companies seeking to protect their intellectual property in transgenic plant varieties (and their ability to get annual sales from farmers for such varieties). Because so many of the projected “energy crops” are species that have not historically been sold as commercial crops, it is likely that they would not be sold as hybrid seed and therefore likely that similar issues may arise in this industry sector.       

Finally, timelines for plant biotechnology tend to be longer than those in microbial or even algal biotech, due to the longer life cycle of the organism, the ordinary need for years of field testing, and (in commercial agriculture) the frequent need for repeated cycles of cross-breeding to ensure that introduced traits are expressed in the desired genetic background. Many of the companies here have already begun field-testing their new varieties, and in one case, that of Syngenta, approvals are in hand to commercialize a transgenic variety in some countries of the world. But the products of most of these companies are still several years away, creating the challenge for the smaller companies to obtain and conserve sufficient capital to stay in business long enough to survive until products can be introduced.  

Whether or not the efforts to develop transgenic or other modified plant varieties as energy crops proves successful, it is undoubtedly a good thing that research programs pursued by companies like these are shifting attention away from “traditional” biofuel species like corn and sugarcane towards nonconventional non-food species like switchgrass, Camelina, Jatropha and woody plants. Most observers would agree with the need for the biofuel industry to increasingly look towards fast-growing, non-food species as the source of biomass for biofuel production, and significant germplasm improvements in these species can be made even without advanced biotechnology. This need is evidenced by the existence of government programs such as the joint USDA/DOE Biomass Research and Development Initiative, one segment of which is devoted to funding innovative approaches to development of new feedstocks for biofuel production, and which has awarded grants to many of the companies profiled here. The broadened focus that these companies, as well as academic research labs around the world, bring to these nontraditional crops will pay off in the long term, regardless of the success of any one company.  

The following are the companies that are using biotechnology to create new plant varieties as improved feedstocks for biofuel production. Profiles of these companies will follow in upcoming installments of the blog over the next several days.  

Conventional Feedstocks
(Note that many of these companies are also developing newer feedstocks)

  • Agrivida: corn
  • ArborGen: purpose-grown trees
  • CanaVialis S.A.: sugarcane
  • Edenspace Systems: corn
  • FuturaGene: hybrid poplar and willow
  • Targeted Growth: corn

Newer Feedstocks

  • Agragen: Camelina
  • Agrisoma: Brassica and Jatropha
  • Agrivida: switchgrass, sugarcane, sorghum, others
  • Ceres: non-food grasses
  • Chromatin: switchgrass, Miscanthus, sorghum and sugarcane
  • Edenspace Systems: switchgrass
  • Evogene: canola, soybean, others
  • Farmacule BioIndustries: sugarcane, tobacco
  • FuturaGene: switchgrass, Miscanthus
  • Kaiima: castor beans (non-GMO)
  • Mendel Biotechnology: grasses, others
  • Metabolix: switchgrass, oil crops, others
  • Rahan Meristem: Jatropha, castor beans
  • SG Biofuels: Jatropha
  • Targeted Growth: Camelina, canola, others

Enzyme Manufacture in Plants

  • Infinite Enzymes (transgenic plants)
  • Medicago (transient expression)
  • Syngenta (transgenic plants)

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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3 thoughts on “Companies Developing Modified Plant Varieties as Improved Biofuel Feedstocks (Part 1)

  1. The era of transgenic plants and GMO energy | Biomass Energy Journal

  2. The progress is quite interesting, in situ degradation of complex cellulose to simpler sugars esp. after the harvest of crops would be a major breakthrough in this direction.

  3. Research Programs,Colorado Medical School & its Research Programs

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