Industrial Biotech is Accelerating
Several different news releases make it evident that industrial applications of genetic biotechnology, which seemed to be the domain of futurists, are now becoming a reality. One example of this new reality will be in the area of energy sciences and biofuels. At least a dozen companies are working on projects to make chemicals formerly derived from petroleum. There are also promising pathways to producing transportation fuels. Bio Architecture Lab (BAL) and DuPont have formed a venture to produce isobutanol from seaweed. DOE has put up half of the 17 million dollars to fund the project. Isobutanol is compatible with current automobile engines, can be used at higher concentrations and has greater energy density than ethanol, and most importantly, does not pick up water making it also compatible with current distribution systems.
BAL is a University of Washington spinout who will attempt to engineer single cell microalgae that can live on seaweed and convert the seaweed to alcohol. Their large scale trials will occur off the coast of Chile in an area of high seaweed density. DuPont will provide the knowledge of large processing and scale up. Such a process wouldn’t compete for land use, fresh water resources, or food production.
Another DuPont project is aimed at making isobutanol from cellulosic wastes, interesting because the system could utilize existing retrofitted corn ethanol plants. Corn ethanol has come under fire for lack of efficiency and competition with food needs. An alternative use for the facilities will be welcomed by investors.
In a very different application, BASF has obtained European Union approval for a genetically modified potato to produce industrial starch. Most industrial starch today is derived from corn, wheat, or tapioca and has a variety of high volume uses including textiles and paper coatings. “Natural potatoes” make two starches, amylose and amylopectin. Only the amylopectin is useful for industrial starch. By turning off the gene for amylose, the GM potato can be processed with higher yield and much lower separation cost.
We often think of genetic manipulation as the domain of high tech drugs. However, advances in genomics will soon begin impacting our material world.