Genomatica Brewing a Green Revolution for the Petrochemical Industry

10/29/08Follow @bvbigelow

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the question: How would we go about engineering an organism to produce the molecules that we want?” Schilling says.

Genomatica demonstrated the ability to do just that when researchers under Mark Burk, Genomatica’s chief technology officer, succeeded earlier this year in manipulating a standard strain of E. coli to produce 1,4-butanediol, or BDO. The colorless, viscous liquid, used to make spandex clothing, skateboard wheels, car bumpers, dashboards and other resilient plastic materials, is normally toxic to E coli. But Genomatica’s engineered bugs were designed to churn the stuff out.

CEO Gann says the global petrochemical industry currently makes about 3 billion pounds of BDO a year for an estimated worldwide market of almost $3 trillion. Gann contends that Genomatica’s bioengineering approach to BDO production is more efficient, less expensive and more environmentally benign.

The established “brute force” method puts crude oil under tremendous heat and pressure in refinery “cracking” units. In contrast, Genomatica’s bioengineered organisms produce BDO by consuming sugar, oxygen, and other nutrients in fermentation tanks that operate at temperatures that are lower than a hot tub. “We don’t need subsidies, by the way,” Gann notes dryly. The approach will be comptetitive even if the price of crude oil drops to $50 a barrel, Gann says.

Genomatica plans to build and begin operating a pilot plant next year as part of its quest to improve process engineering and increase yields for industrial-scale manufacturing. But the CEO says he doesn’t want his firm to get into the BDO manufacturing business. Instead, Genomatica’s strategy is to license its methods for producing BDO to a variety of industries, including sugarcane growers, chemical manufacturers, and the companies that use BDO to make their own products.

Using its computational technology, Gann says Genomatica has identified a number of other compounds that can be made using genetically engineered microrganisms. But Gann says the company isn’t ready to talk about those compounds just yet.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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