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Designer Biofuel Crops – Agrivida in Forbes

Monday, April 5th, 2010
Original source of this article: Forbes, April 2010
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Jonathan Fahey, 04.01.10, 6:00 PM ET

Plants wouldn’t have been able to thrive for hundreds of millions of years if they weren’t tough. Which is why humans are having such difficulty breaking down plants in the quest to turn plant matter into biofuels.

So one company called Agrivida is trying to use plant power against plants themselves in hopes of making this process cheaper and easier. The company is coaxing plants to produce, as they are growing, the very substances that break down plant cell walls into sugars.

Now, in order to get at the sugars in the tough parts of plant matter, called cellulose and hemicellulose, biofuel companies first have to bombard it with acid, heat or both. This step is called pretreatment, and it doesn’t get nearly the attention that the later steps in the biofuel process do, the wizardry of cutting the cellulose into sugars and turning those resulting sugars into fuels. (See: “Biofuels Battle.”)

“The sugar conversion is flashy, neat science that is doable,” says Jeremy Johnson, a chemical engineer and cofounder of Agrivida. “But when it comes to the costs of producing biofuels, that’s not where the biggest impact can be made.”

Johnson estimates that 40% of the cost of cellulosic ethanol is from the cost of the pretreatment and cutting up the cellulose into sugars, called hydrolysis. Agrivida thinks it can avoid all this by inserting special genes from microbes like fungi, bacteria or yeasts into plants. These genes instruct the plants to produce enzymes they wouldn’t normally produce, ones that liberate cellulose and chew it up.

The problem, of course, is that the enzymes can’t work while the plant is living, or else the plant wouldn’t be able to grow properly. So the company modifies the enzyme slightly, by inserting something called an intein into the enzyme. The intein, which is a section of a protein, blocks the part of the enzyme that allows the enzyme to do its work, called the active site.

After the plant is harvested, though, the intein can be removed simply by adding heat, exposing the active site and allowing the conversion to biofuels to start.

Agrivida is far from commercializing a new biofuel crop, and success is far from certain. Companies working on more traditional methods, like the enzyme company Novozymes, are making progress in cutting costs and increasing effectiveness. If they can continue to make big strides, it will be tough for Agrivida to compete.

Also, other, big agribusiness companies could beat Agrivida to the punch. Syngenta has already developed a strain of corn designed to make fermenting corn kernels into ethanol more effective.

“Obviously, we have to deliver,” says Johnson. “We don’t want to be coming to market when the industry has built itself out already.” But Johnson thinks that the relatively slow pace of cellulosic biofuel development will give Agrivida time to catch up.

The biofuels industry failed to hit a government mandate for advanced biofuels this year because no commercial advanced biofuels facilities were built in time.

Agrivida was backed by the venture firms Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and by DAG Ventures. It also recently nabbed a pair of government research awards, one from the Department of Agriculture for $1.9 million and an ARPA-E grant of $4.6 million.

This is enough, says Johnson, to hit the company’s first goal: a strain of corn ready for field-testing by the end of next year. Johnson hopes to be able to have seeds for sale by mid-decade. “That’s when the cellulosic ethanol market will be starting to grow,” Johnson says.