Companies Developing Modified Microorganisms for Production of Ethanol and Other Biofuels

Earlier this year, I completed several blog entries that provided brief profiles of companies developing modified microorganisms, plants or algae for improved biofuel production. The field has, of course, continued to develop in the several months since those entries, and not only have the originally-profiled companies announced new business and scientific developments, but other companies have announced their presence or have otherwise come to my attention. In view of the dozens of companies profiled in the earlier entries, it really isn’t feasible to continually update their profiles, particularly since links to company websites are included in each profile, but in this and the next several entries I will profile some of the additional companies that have entered the field or whose activities I’ve recently learned about. 

This entry will profile several additional companies developing altered microorganisms or yeast for the production of ethanol, higher alcohols and other fuels. Future postings will discuss companies developing modified algae or plants for fuel manufacture. The following 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. 

Companies Developing Modified Microorganisms for Ethanol Production

A large number of companies are using advanced biotechnology to improve the bacterial and yeast strains that are used to produce ethanol from traditional sugar or starch based feedstocks or from cellulosic feedstocks. These were profiled in my earlier entries, beginning at http//wp.me/pKTxe-I. The following are profiles of some additional companies in this sector. 

iDiverse, Inc. is developing high-performance cell lines for the biological manufacture of fuel ethanol, industrial enzymes, and pharmaceutical products, and is also working on creating transgenic plants that are resistant to a broad spectrum of diseases and environmental stresses. The company says that its proprietary technology includes genetic sequences which, when introduced into cells, allows the resulting transformed cells to be able to resist a variety of stresses that occur in the bioproduction process. The company believes that cell lines incorporating this proprietary ProTectAll™ transgenic technology will have enhanced resistance to the stresses of the bioproduction process, that will enable these cells to produce more product at higher concentrations, using less nutrients, and under more extreme conditions, thus resulting in higher production efficiencies at lower costs. 

The company is targeting the production of fuel ethanol as the first application of this technology. Fuel ethanol is ordinarily produced by the fermentation of a carbohydrate substrate by yeast cells, but yeast can be inhibited from reaching its optimum production efficiency by a variety of stresses including rising alcohol concentration, low pH, high temperature, bacterial contamination, and dissolved chemicals. The changes iDiverse is engineering into yeast strains are designed to overcome these problems. In October 2010 iDiverse announced that it had successfully modified yeast to be highly resistant to a number of lethal stresses normally encountered in the bioproduction of fuel ethanol, and in doing so enabled the yeast to generate significantly more ethanol. In its press release, the company said “Our technology is applicable to current fuel ethanol manufacturing processes using corn and sugar cane as starting materials and also to those being developed to use cellulosic biomass”. The company’s CEO also says that, “if its technology is effective at large-scale, it could increase the efficiency of installed fuel ethanol plants, enhance yields from corn and sugar cane feed stocks, and help manufacturers bridge the fuel ethanol production gap until the next generation biomass plants come on-line. Also, our technology is ready to be used in applications beyond fuel ethanol. Those include the bioproduction of industrial enzymes, research reagents, and pharmaceuticals. Our technology will provide benefits to biomanufacturing cell types beyond yeast, such as CHO, insect, fungal, and algal cells.” 

iDiverse is also developing genetically modified plants incorporating its ProTectAll™ transgenic technology that are expected to be resistant to a wide range of fungi and viruses. Such plants will require less pesticide, fertilizer, and water to achieve better yields and will be able to be grown on less than optimal land under adverse conditions. These plant varieties are expected to be less costly to grow, provide higher yields, and be friendlier to the environment. 

LanzaTech is a New Zealand-based company founded in early 2005 to develop and commercialize proprietary technologies for the conversion of industrial waste gases into fuels (including ethanol) and chemicals using bacteria. LanzaTech says that its process can use gases from any source, including carbon monoxide produced in high volumes by the steel industry, other industrial waste gases that contain elevated concentrations of carbon monoxide and little or no hydrogen, as well as syngas. Syngas can be produced from any biomass resource, municipal waste or other organic wastestream, using a gasification process that breaks down the chemical bonds in the biomass making up to 80% of the energy available for fermentation. In the LanzaTech process, the gas feedstock is scrubbed, cooled and sent to a bioreactor. The carbon component is used as a food source for proprietary LanzaTech microbes during a biofermentation process, which produce ethanol as a liquid biofuel. 

After several years of fund-raising and internal growth, the company says it is now ready to undertake the next stage on its critical path, the pilot-scale demonstration of its fuel ethanol production from both biomass syngas and industrial waste gas feedstocks. A pilot plant design has been developed that will allow ethanol production from each of these feedstocks to be demonstrated at scale over the next 12 months (i.e. 2010-11). 

LanzaTech recently announced two alliances with Chinese companies: a memorandum of understanding with one of the largest coal producers in China, Henan Coal and Chemical Industrial Corporation (HNCC), for the production of fuels and chemicals using the LanzaTech Process and synthesis gas derived from the gasification of coal; and a partnership with China’s largest steel and iron conglomerate, Baosteel, and the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) to commercialize its technologies for producing fuel ethanol from steel mill off gases. 

Xylogenics, Inc. is a start-up company spun off from the Indiana University Medical School.  Dr. Mark Goebl of IU and his colleagues identified a particular strain of yeast that was particularly efficient at producing ethanol from cellulosic feedstocks. The company says that this yeast strain is able to increase ethanol production from cellulose by at least 30%, while also allowing producers to use feedstocks such as corn kernels, corn stover, wheat straw, barley straw, grasses, wood waste and municipal waste. 

In August  2010, Xylogenics and Lallemand Ethanol Technology, a global provider of yeast to the fuel ethanol industry, announced that they signed an exclusive agreement to develop and commercialize genetically enhanced ethanol producing yeasts for first generation fuel ethanol production. Xylogenics will use its extensive knowledge of yeast genomics in cooperation with Lallemand to engineer a new class of industrial ethanol yeast strains. These enhanced yeasts will increase fermentation yield, reduce fermentation costs and potentially increase ethanol plant fermentation capacity compared with current commercial strains. Lallemand will be responsible for process development, manufacturing and commercialization of the new yeast. Under the terms of the agreement, Xylogenics will receive patent license fees and royalty payments. 

Companies Developing Modified Microorganisms for Production of Other Fuels

In earlier blog entries, I profiled several companies using biotechnology to improve organisms used to produce butanol or isobutanol, or other renewable fuels such as biodiesel or jet biofuel. Here are profiles of two additional companies active in these sectors. 

EASEL Biotechnologies, LLC is a UCLA spinoff company that is developing strategies for biosynthesis of chemicals and fuels from renewable resources such as CO2. Ethanol made by fermentation can be used as a fuel additive, but its use is limited by its low energy content. “Higher” alcohols (those with more than two carbons in the molecule) have higher energy content, but naturally occurring microorganisms do not produce them. UCLA Professor James Liao has genetically engineered microorganisms to make higher alcohols from glucose or directly from carbon dioxide, and the company was founded to develop such organisms to enable manufacture of renewable higher alcohols for use as chemical building blocks or as fuel. Liao’s work makes use of genetically engineered E. coli or cyanobacteria, modified to enable use of photosynthesis to directly convert carbon dioxide into higher alcohols having between three and eight carbon atoms. Those alcohols can then be further processed to produce green fuels. 

In June 2010, EASEL Biotechnologies was named a winner of the 2010 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award for Recycled Fuel Breakthroughs. The company won this award, given by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with support from the American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute, for Dr. Liao’s work in developing what it calls the world’s first biofuels derived from recycled carbon dioxide.  In receiving the award, Liao was quoted as saying “The first practical application [of this technology] will probably be to hook up to power plants and recycle some of the CO2 and make it into fuel,” Liao also said that, while the technology has the potential for multiple uses, he anticipates that the first goal would be to use it as a gasoline replacement. However, Liao estimated that it will probably take five to 10 years before the technology is ready for commercial use. 

Ginkgo BioWorks is a synthetic biology company founded by five MIT Ph.D. scientists, that is developing strategies for engineered biological solutions to address challenges in energy and chemicals. The company has developed a proprietary set of synthetic biology tools and technologies that allow it to design and build new organisms. Although much of the company is devoted to these basic “tool” products, the company has embarked on one biofuel-related project. Ginkgo, along with collaborators Jay Keasling of UC Berkeley and Mary Lidstrom and David Baker of the University of Washington, was awarded a $6.7M grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (DOE ARPA-E) to engineer E. coli to produce liquid transportation fuels from electricity and carbon dioxide. The goal of the project is  use synthetic biology to re-engineer the bacteria to fix carbon dioxide into liquid transportation fuels, such as gasoline, using energy from electricity. The project was scheduled to begin in the summer of 2010 and last for three 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 industrial biotechnology regulatory affairs, patents, technology licensing, 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 and from Dr. Glass’ September 2010 talk on biotechnology regulations from the Algae Biomass Summit, along with more information on D. Glass Associates’ regulatory affairs consulting capabilities, are available at www.slideshare.net/djglass99 or at www.dglassassociates.com.

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