Genomatica Clears Way for ‘Sustainable Chemical’ Demo Plant

6/2/09Follow @bvbigelow

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certain drugs and the antiseptic Betadine, and chemical manufacturers use it to make solvents, spandex, lycra, and a resilient plastic material used in skateboard wheels and automotive parts.

Since Genomatica adjusted its strategy in 2006 to exploit opportunities in the chemical industry, the company has methodically identified each step in a complex process of bacteria-based BDO production. The startup then worked to eliminate each obstacle along the way. Schilling says the most recent hurdle was entirely a chemical engineering problem.

While the company showed last year it could genetically engineer bacteria to make BDO, Schilling says the E. coli is producing BDO in concentrations of 10 percent or less. The BDO also is in the same fermentation broth as the bacterial cells, along with salts and other unwanted contaminants. “We ultimately needed to produce BDO in concentrations of 99 percent,” Schilling says. “Our process engineers did a fantastic job of designing a process that works in a way that scales up.”

genomatica-lab1Schilling says Genomatica’s technique operates at lower cost than traditional BDO manufacturing processes, which could free existing BDO producers from relying on volatile commodity markets for crude oil. Meanwhile, Genomatica says its researchers also have demonstrated “20,000-fold increases in the concentrations of BDO that its microbes can produce,” which represents additional potential cost reductions.

Schilling also assures me that Genomatica’s process won’t impact the cost of sugar—or trigger a “food or fuel” debate comparable to the corn ethanol industry—because the amount of sugar consumed by its genetically engineered bacteria is relatively small. In any case, sugar’s role in the food supply is less significant than corn’s, which is especially important for livestock feed, Schilling says.

A Genomatica spokeswoman says that federal ethanol mandates require about one third of the U.S. corn production to go toward fuel, which can have an impact on commodity prices for corn. In contrast, the spokeswoman says four world-scale BDO plants would use only about 1 percent of the world’s sugar supply.

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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