Preview of my presentation at the “World Biofuels Markets” conference

As I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, I will be chairing a daylong session on Energy Crops at the World Biofuels Markets conference in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, on March 22, 2011. I’ll also be presenting a talk at one panel of this session, and I’ll give a brief preview of the talk here. 

The conference website describes the World Biofuels Market conference as “a 3 day ’one stop shop’ [that will] assemble the entire biofuels value chain and accelerate the commercialization of sustainable mobility”. The conference features three days of concurrent sessions on topics including bioethanol, military biofuels, aviation biofuels, advanced biofuels, algae, energy crops, and several sessions on the economic and business aspects of the biofuel business. The Energy Crops session consists of four panels over the course of the day on Tuesday, March 22. The first session, “High Powered Energy Crops” will discuss new feedstocks such as switchgrass, miscanthus and camelina. The second session will focus solely on jatropha as an emerging energy crop, with scheduled speakers from the Jatropha Alliance, SG Biofuels, JOil, and D1 Oils. The first session of the afternoon will be on “Feedstock Systems and Cropping” and will focus on agricultural and agronomic techniques to improve yields of energy crops. The final session of the day will be devoted to “next generation plant biotech” and the role of plant science and genetics to influence energy crop development. My talk will be at this last session, and I’ll be presenting an overview of the potential uses of biotechnology to improve the plant species used as feedstocks for biofuel production. I’ll be accompanied on this panel by speakers from companies currently conducting such R&D. 

My talk will begin with an overview of the crop species that are considered for use as energy crops and the genetic engineering technologies that may be applicable to these plant species. In recent years, many academic research labs and companies have been applying genetic engineering or other advanced biological technologies to improve plants to create specially-tailored feedstocks for production of biofuels. There are several excellent review articles providing more comprehensive scientific reviews of research in this field, such as Sticklen 2006; Torney et al. 2007; Gressel 2007; Sticklen 2008; Weng et al. 2008; Hinchee et al. 2009; Hisano et al. 2009; Abramson et al. 2010 (Plant Science 178:61-72); Vega-Sanchez and Ronald 2010, and Simmons et al. 2010, among others. 

Techniques for genetic engineering of plants have been well-established for over twenty-five years, with the earliest methods for transforming dicotyledonous plants being developed in the mid-to-late 1980s and methods for transforming monocots (including most of the world’s important cereal crops) arriving several years later. Among the techniques available are the use of Agrobacterium, a microorganism naturally having the ability to inject its DNA into plant cells; electroporation, in which the DNA is transported into plant cells using electric current; and the “gene gun”, where DNA is adhered to extremely small nanospheres which are shot at high velocity into the cells. Today, virtually any plant species of any agricultural or industrial importance can be genetically engineered. 

Although I won’t be discussing the choice of feedstock in any level of detail, the following are the species that are most often considered as energy crops: 

Sugar- or Starch-Based (for Ethanol, butanol)

First Generation

  • Corn
  • Sugarcane
  • Sugar Beet
  • Sorghum

Second Generation

  • Switchgrass
  • Miscanthus
  • Eucalyptus
  • Willow, Hybrid Poplar

Oilseed (for Biodiesel)

First Generation

  • Soybean
  • Canola/Oilseed Rape

Second Generation

  • Jatropha
  • Camelina
  • Castor Beans

The bulk of the talk will consist of descriptions of the most common strategies to use advanced biotechnology to improve energy crops. Although time constraints will require this to be a fairly brief overview, I’ll present some specific examples of companies and academic labs that are pursuing these strategies. These strategies are as follows. 

Enhancing substrate concentration

  • —  Engineer oilseed crops to have altered or enhanced lipid content
  • —  Engineer cellulosic crops to increase polysaccharide levels

Enhancing feedstock digestibility

  • —  Improve or optimize enzymatic degradation of cellulosic feedstock
  • —  Decrease or modify concentrations of lignins, other recalcitrant compounds

Increasing biomass or crop yield

  • —  increasing plant growth rates
  • —  insect or herbicide resistance
  • —  drought tolerance

Plant genomics to aid breeding, genetic engineering

Use genetically modified plants to manufacture industrial enzymes

I’ll also present a list of the companies that are known to be using recombinant DNA or other advanced biotechnologies to improve energy feedstocks. I’ve previously profiled these companies in earlier entries in my blog – in a series of three entries beginning here, as well as an additional entry late last year profiling several other companies. 

In the next section of the talk, I’ll briefly summarize the impact of biotechnology regulations on these efforts to improve energy crops using biotechnology. This part of the talk will also deal with ground that I’ve covered in earlier entries in the blog, with several entries on U.S. regulation of transgenic plants, and others on the situation in Canada and Europe. I remain optimistic that improved energy crops can successfully navigate the regulatory process in countries like the U.S. and Canada, and that government regulation will not present an impossible roadblock to the industry. The recent, long-awaited U.S. approval for Syngenta’s corn variety expressing a thermostable amylase is an encouraging development. However, I hope to have time in the talk to at least mention the strong dissenting opinion that was put forward by Steven Strauss and colleagues at Oregon State University, in a provocative article in BioScience in October 2010. Strauss et al contend that the level of regulation imposed on transgenic plants in the U.S. and elsewhere is excessive and is not justified by scientific considerations, and these authors view these regulatory schemes as having, in the words of the title of their article “far-reaching deleterious impacts” on research with engineered perennial biofuel crops. 

Finally, I’ll conclude the talk with some very brief observations on the prospects for commercial success of engineered energy crops, and the obstacles they may face in reaching the market. 

I’ll be posting my slides after the talk, and will post a link in a blog entry shortly after the conference. I also hope to be blogging during or shortly after the conference to report on any interesting news or information that I may learn on topics relevant to the focus of this blog. As always, please feel free to comment or contact me with any questions you may have. 

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, along with more information on D. Glass Associates’ regulatory affairs consulting capabilities, are available at www.slideshare.net/djglass99 or at www.dglassassociates.com. The views expressed in this blog are those of Dr. Glass and D. Glass Associates and do not represent the views of any other organization with which Dr. Glass is affiliated.

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