Companies Developing Modified Plant Varieties as Improved Biofuel Feedstocks (Part 2)

The following are brief profiles of the 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 and an additional 10 profiles to follow in Part 3 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. 

Agragen, LLC is a biotechnology company based in Cincinnati, Ohio, with offices in Helsinki, Finland, and Grand Forks, North Dakota that genetically modifies Camelina sativa to increase agronomically desirable traits, based on breeding expertise and access to germplasm. Camelina is a low input alternative plant for oil used in downstream biofuel production, while also producing a high quality meal comparable to soybean meal. Agragen is reported to have a patent portfolio that includes nine major Camelina-based patents, four patents pending, and numerous additional intellectual property licenses related to the improvement of Camelina. 

In June 2009, Agragen entered into a partnership with Great Plains Oil and Exploration (which calls itself  “The Camelina Company”), aimed at increasing Camelina’s oil content, viability in expanded locations, and resistance to disease, weeds and pests. In August 2009, Great Plains announced that Agragen had filed for patent protection on a novel method designed to increase the tolerance of Camelina to Group 2 herbicides. Agragen’s science team has reportedly introduced specific modifications that increase Camelina’s tolerance to Group 2 herbicides by more than 300-fold in laboratory testing.  This unique approach is designed to make Camelina more tolerant for planting in areas where residual Group 2 herbicides in the soil limit farmer’s cropping options.  The introduction of an herbicide-tolerant Camelina will potentially open up the crop to millions of additional acres of rotational land. The resulting intellectual property will belong to Great Plains, and will expand Great Plains’ germplasm collection, which already comprises the majority of the world’s Camelina germplasm for commercial use. 

In November 2009, Agragen announced the acquisition of intellectual property rights that will increase oil content in Camelina. Through an agreement with the University of Alberta and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), Agragen will use its patented and patent-pending technology to introduce into Camelina a gene encoding a key enzyme in oil synthesis. Further testing will be needed to demonstrate that the introduction of the gene encoding this enzyme will result in elevation of oil production in Camelina. However, researchers with the University of Alberta and AAFC have already demonstrated in other systems that the introduction of this enzyme results in significant elevation of oil content. In fact, it is expected that the enhancement could increase oil content by as much as five percent. Once ready for commercialization, Agragen plans to transfer the resulting intellectual property to Great Plains. 

In 2005, Agragen proposed to use transgenic flax to make albumin and a recombinant form of omega-3 fatty acids from flax grown in North Dakota. Like several other proposals in the mid-2000s to use transgenic plants to produce pharmaceutical products, this project drew controversy and it is not clear if it ever proceeded to fruition. 

Agrisoma Biosciences, Inc. uses a proprietary chromosome engineering technology (“Engineered Trait Loci”) to create novel bio-energy crops engineered for maximum production of optimized oils for use in renewable fuels. The company’s goal is to create high-yielding, optimized oilseed crops for production of biodiesel. Engineered crops such as Brassica and Jatropha are expected to provide high quality feedstock at reduced costs. 

Agrisoma’s ETL system is used to engineer new chromosome structures (“Engineered Trait Loci”) that carry new combinations of traits within an optimal genetic environment, providing consistency, performance and stability when transformed into a host species.  Unlike common methods that randomly insert traits into the chromosomes of a plant, Agrisoma’s ETL system is a precision technology that introduces traits into a specific, selected chromosome to provide performance and stability advantages.  The ETL system has produced multiple trait combinations that have gone from initial design to the field in under 2 years, demonstrating the speed and efficiency of the ETL technology.  The technology has been successfully applied to a number of major global crops including major food crops and new, emerging industrial crops such as Brassica and Jatropha oilseeds, both highly productive and sustainable bio-energy crops.  

In 2009, Agrisoma conducted its first field tests in Canada, under the regulations of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, of engineered Brassica and soybean, improved in oil quality, content and seed size.  Agrisoma applied its proprietary ETL process to produce a new soybean line that carries an independent mini-chromosome comprising multiple new regions for efficient gene stacking in soybean. The company says that this variety is the first engineered crop variety based on a minichromosome to be taken to the field and assessed under field conditions. The maturation of the ETL varieties in the field duplicates that of control varieties, showing an identical rate of seed development and pod fill. The company has also been testing engineered oilseed Brassica varieties, have shown significant improvement in oil quality, content and overall seed size. The company says that these trials  have shown that ETL engineered crops can hold up under periods of stresses, particularly during a  year in which the lack of moisture hit many crop production regions very hard The company says that, in regions affected by low moisture, selections of ETL engineered lines showed good flowering and seed set. In regions where moisture has not been a problem, the ETL crops are performing as anticipated. The Brassica field trials took place in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. 

Agrivida, Inc. is an agricultural biotechnology company developing varieties of switchgrass, sugarcane, sorghum, corn, and other energy crops for the production of chemicals, fuels, and bioproducts. By enabling the production of cheap sugars from this non-food, cellulosic biomass, the company expects that its energy crops and processing technology can reduce costs by over 30% for these industrial biotechnology products. 

The key to Agrivida’s technology is the introduction of genetic modifications that allow the plants to produce inactive enzymes within the plant cell wall. After harvest, the enzymes are activated on demand to degrade the cellulose into sugars for downstream production at costs the company says are comparable to $50/bbl petroleum. Because Agrivida’s energy crop varieties produce their own enzymes, the cellulosic biomass can be broken down with less severe pretreatments and without addition of exogenous enzymes. 

In November 2009, Agrivida received two separate awards for the continued development of energy crops expressing cell wall-degrading enzymes. Funding from the United States Department of Agriculture, which could amount to almost $2 million in total, is part of the Biomass Research and Development Initiative, while a $4.6 million award from the Department of Energy is from the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy. In awarding the grant, ARPA-E stated that projects like this will lower the cost of biofuels and chemicals and “will help establish a sustainable market for non-food biomass resources to bolster the development of biorefinery jobs and commerce and create carbon neutral transportation fuels”. 

ArborGen is the global leader in improving trees through advanced genetics, and is dedicated to improving the sustainability and productivity of purpose grown working forests, providing more wood on less land while preserving native habitats. Global demand for wood-based products, including renewable energy, is predicted to grow significantly into the foreseeable future. To meet this growing demand for biofuels, ArborGen is researching and developing purpose grown trees to produce cellulosic ethanol as an environmentally friendly and renewable alternative to fossil fuels. The trees ArborGen is targeting, particularly U.S. plantation hardwoods, are ideally suited to produce cellulose-based ethanol from commercial working forests. Among the potential bioenergy products the company is developing are cold tolerant eucalyptus; short rotation hardwoods; and short rotation pine varieties. One of the fastest growing hardwoods, Eucalyptus, along with other hardwoods, has the potential to provide a ready source of biomass for biofuels as well as high quality wood for pulp and paper. ArborGen has conducted numerous field tests of engineered trees, and has obtained a number of recent USDA permits for field testing of Eucalyptus hybrids with altered lignin biosynthesis. 

CanaVialis S.A is a Brazilian company whose mission is to develop and provide sugarcane varieties to growers as well as services, products and expert advice that enable the achievement of the highest degree of productivity in their sugarcane fields. Since its creation in 2003, CanaVialis has applied the best available knowledge, professionals and technologies to the Brazilian sugarcane industry, and the company hopes to be the best and largest developer and supplier of genetic solutions in sugarcane through the use of state-of-the-art technological processes and high-quality employees. 

The company utilizes traditional breeding technologies as well as cutting-edge biotechnology. In a partnership with Alellyx (a Brazilian plant biotech and genomics company that is affiliated with the Monsanto Company), CanaVialis has invested in the improvement of sugarcane with the use of genetic engineering. This partnership has undertaken projects focused on using genetic modification to develop superior sugarcane varieties.  In May 2007, CanaVialis and Alellyx signed an agreement with Monsanto which will allow CanaVialis to make technologies developed by Monsanto available to the sugar and alcohol business sector. The initial products resulting from this agreement will be insect attack resistant and herbicide-tolerant varieties. These technologies will allow CanaVialis customers to increase the productivity of cane fields and decrease production costs. 

Ceres, Inc. develops & markets low-carbon, non-food grasses for advanced biofuels and biopower. The company’s energy crops can provide more fuel or electricity, new opportunities for growers and a cleaner environment. Using advanced plant breeding and biotechnology, Ceres is developing dedicated energy crops as raw materials for a new generation of biofuels made from plant stems, stalks and leaves. This will enable the large-scale production of biofuels by increasing yields, lowering costs, facilitating processing and refining, and even helping reduce greenhouse gases. The company’s first products, high-yielding switchgrass cultivars and high-biomass sorghum hybrids, are now available under the Blade Energy Crops brand. Other crops in the pipeline include sweet sorghum, Miscanthus and energycane. 

Using marker-assisted breeding and other technology platforms, the company plans to introduce a succession of enhancements, including further increases in biomass yield and other agronomic and compositional improvements. For sugar-based biofuel production, Ceres will introduce sweet sorghum hybrids (also called sweet-stem sorghum) to complement or expand feedstock supplies in sugarcane-growing regions. This includes Gulf Coast states in the United States and other sub-tropical or tropical growing environments. Miscanthus is a tall Asian perennial grass that grows unusually well in temperate climates. It has been used as an energy crop across Europe for two decades. Ceres is using multiple technology platforms to improve this crop, which can produce high yields of biomass. The company’s goal is to expand the scale and range where farmers can grow this crop. 

In November 2009, Ceres announced that it plans to expand an advanced trait development project to increase biomass yields of several energy grasses by as much as 40% in coming years, while simultaneously decreasing the use of inputs such as nitrogen fertilizers. The project, which was selected by the U.S. Department of Energy from among 3,700 renewable energy proposals, will be funded in part by a $5 million research grant from the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy. The three-year project was expected to begin in late 2009. Ceres researchers will test its advanced traits in a variety of energy grasses such as switchgrass, sorghum and Miscanthus. Productivity and inputs requirements, such as fertilizer, will be evaluated as well as expected improvements to carbon and nitrogen cycles. 

Chromatin, Inc. has developed patented mini-chromosome technologies that enable the development of new seed products and the delivery of multiple genetic traits. The company expects that consumers, growers, seed companies, and processors will derive greater value from crop plants through the application of Chromatin’s technologies. These benefits are expected to include more efficient and faster product development, greater product differentiation, and creation of novel products. 

Chromatin initially developed its gene stacking technology for applications in traditional crops (corn, soy, cotton, canola), forming partnerships with industry leaders that have market validated trait technologies. Chromatin is now entering the bioenergy feedstock market, where there are significant opportunities to create and capture value using the company’s transformation technology. Its first feedstock products are targeting crops such as switchgrass, Miscanthus, sorghum and sugarcane where the addition of traits can improve crop and sugar yield and allow digestion of cellulosic fiber. Chromatin is also using this synthetic biology technology to develop scalable and competitive solutions for the North American cellulosic biofuels market. 

Edenspace Systems Corporation is a plant biotechnology company that is developing innovative new crops to lower the cost of renewable fuels. The company is also a commercial leader in the use of living plants to restore and protect the environment (phytoremediation). Responding to the market need for lower-cost ways to produce cellulosic biofuels such as ethanol and butanol, Edenspace is developing Energy Corn™ and other enhanced energy crops. To support commercial sales and licensing of its energy crops, the Company is implementing a five-part market strategy: 

  • Bioengineer corn so that the stover can be processed in existing or planned corn grain ethanol production facilities.
  • Apply the technology platform developed for Energy Corn™ to other crops such as sorghum, switchgrass, sugarcane and trees.
  • Sell proprietary Edenspace seed to farmers as well as license traits to seed companies for incorporation in their own proprietary crop seed.
  • Develop energy crops under cooperative agreements with government agencies and industry leaders, and maintain key research and development links with universities and other centers of excellence for ongoing plant research relating to biofuels applications.
  • Develop and expand a strong intellectual property estate

The Energy Corn™ line of products are expected to deliver significant benefits to various customers. For the farmer, these varieties will have a greater yield per acre, increasing ethanol yield and increasing the farmer’s profits, while also enabling farmers to enter new markets. These products are also expected to benefit the biorefinery by leading to lower enzyme costs and therefore lower preprocessing costs. Finally, benefits to consumers will derive from lower fuel costs and other environmental benefits of biofuel crops. 

Edenspace received permits from the USDA in 2009 to conduct field trials of transgenic corn and poplar that had been engineered for improved digestibility.  In November 2008, Edenspace announced the commercial availability of a non-transgenic, high-yielding forage sorghum that it says is an excellent feedstock for production of cellulosic biofuels such as ethanol and butanol. The new feedstock was selected from more than 100 sorghum varieties screened in 2008 for biomass yield and low processing cost. 

Evogene Ltd. is an agricultural biotechnology company geared toward developing improved plants for the agriculture and biofuel industries through the use of plant genomics. The company was founded in 2002 as a plant-focused spin-off of Compugen, aimed at utilizing predictive discovery capabilities in the agricultural biotechnology field. The company’s mission is to be a world leader in delivering improved plant traits to the agbiotech industry through the use of a continuously improving proprietary platform combining state-of-the-art computational genomics, molecular biology and advanced breeding methods. The company combines state-of-the-art computational gene discovery technologies, molecular biology, high-through-put assays, classical and advanced breeding methods, and uses these methods to discover and develop genes for the improvement of plant traits, and improved high oil yielding plant varieties for biofuels production. Evogene holds pending IP rights to over 300 novel genes and more than 40 promoters validated in plants relating to key plant traits, such as yield under normal and various environmental stress conditions (such as drought), fertilizer utilization and more. 

Evogene has currently two complementary ongoing projects aimed at developing improved oil yielding crops suitable for biodiesel production: 

  • Increased yield (oil yield) of canola and soybean. Evogene has discovered a set of proprietary candidate genes that have high potential to increase economic oil yield and are currently undergoing validation in model plant systems. 
  • Develop new crops (feedstocks) for biodiesel. In September 2007, Evogene formed a joint venture with OrFuel, a fully owned US subsidiary of Ormat Industries, that was aimed at combining industry needs with plant development capabilities to produce an optimized feedstock which is tailored for the biodiesel industry. The collaboration, which has recently been terminated, was focused on using advanced breeding techniques on oil yielding crops for the development of non edible commercial crops for biodiesel, suitable for growth in non arable lands under harsh condition and that require low inputs.  Evogene is continuing the project on its own.

 In February 2010, Evogene announced the establishment of field trials in Texas, USA and northeastern Brazil, for the evaluation of its proprietary castor bean lines. These castor bean lines, designed for higher yield and growth on semi-arid land, are being developed by Evogene to serve as a sustainable and cost efficient second-generation feedstock for biofuel production. Having recently completed two years of field trials under semi-arid conditions in Israel, the purpose of the field trials in Texas and Brazil is to evaluate the lines when grown in the two main target locations for future commercial growth, and further develop them to local conditions. The field trials will be operated in collaboration with Texas AgriLife Research, part of the Texas A&M System in the U.S., and South Cone Agriculture in Brazil.  These field tests are a continuation of the project under the terminated OrFuel collaboration.

Farmacule BioIndustries Pty Ltd. is developing molecular farming technology to cost effectively mass produce high-value industrial and therapeutic proteins and biofuels. The company’s “In-Plant Activation technology” (INPACT) allows Farmacule to insert a molecular switch into the genome of a plant, to control the way proteins are produced, ultimately allowing large scale high value protein production. The goal is to use the INPACT molecular switch to create engineered plants that synthesize desired proteins in targeted areas such as leaves, roots and seeds. The technology also allows Farmacule to turn the production of genes on and off in plants when required – either in response to specific external or internal influences. The INPACT technology was initially developed by a team of molecular biologists under Prof. James Dale’s lead at the Queensland University of Technology, from which INPACT has licensed the technology. 

Farmacule’s goal is to select the most appropriate crop species to use as an efficient bioreactor in a commercial molecular farming operation. The initial focus has been on finding crops which can be genetically enhanced, harvested with ease and processed with minimum complications, while placing particular importance on the safety and containment of gene flow to other species. In this way, the company feels that any risks arising from the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment can be eliminated using the INPACT technology. In particular, INPACT enables the creation of male sterility in plants and therefore has commercial application in the production of hybrid seed and preventing the release of modified genetic material into neighboring crops. Farmacule’s efforts have also concentrated on ‘safe’ plants such as tobacco, bananas and sugarcane, which provide several advantages over other potential plant bioreactors. 

In October 2007, Farmacule entered into a partnership with Syngenta, the world’s largest agribusiness company, the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and qutbluebox, to establish the Syngenta Centre for Sugarcane Biofuel Development which will develop cellulosic ethanol and biofuels derived from sugarcane. 

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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