Matrix Genetics Pursues the Algae Fuel Dream in the Lab, Not With Big Steel Tanks, Giant Ponds

5/12/11Follow @xconomy

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applying its ag/bio know-how into making plant-based feedstocks for renewable fuels. Camelina seeds seemed like a good bet, given they can produce oils without competing for acreage with food crops on the best agricultural soils. Targeted Growth used traditional hybrid cross-breeding techniques, which farmers have used for thousands of years, to come up with seeds that boosted oil yields by about 10 to 15 percent per year, McCormick says.

The constant search for higher-yields in camelina, however, has its limits, especially when you talk about the scales required for fuel production. Traditional breeding techniques might be able to give rise to another 40 to 50 percent yield increase before hard-core science really has to step in, and use molecular assistance technologies to retain certain desired traits in new offspring, or splice in new snippets of DNA, McCormick says.

Even then, camelina doesn’t have the potential of a fast-dividing organism like algae. The Matrix team, which includes scientists from Merck, Stanford, and the University of Washington, gravitated about three or four years ago to cyanobacteria for a few reasons, McCormick says. The genetics of cyanobacteria are simple. Unlike higher organisms like leafy plants and animals, the cyanobacteria cells have no nucleus. The DNA is more accessible, and more malleable than in higher organisms, she says. Since you’re starting with a simpler template, that makes it a bit easier to get a grasp of the molecular pathways that cells follow through various life processes like growth, division, and death. The Matrix team found some kindred spirits at the Institute for Systems Biology, who were also interested in using cyanobacteria to learn more about the activity of whole “systems” within the cell, not just one gene or one protein in isolation.

I wondered what has actually happened to make it feasible for this kind of work to go from basic science to a company. The first step, McCormick says, was to show that it could modify the organism to produce different kinds of lipids that can be converted into useful oils. The second was when Matrix showed by making genetic modifications, it could produce “many-fold” improvements in lipid yields, she says. The third step was when it developed tools for modifying cyanobacteria so that engineers can do more than just come up with different lipids, but other kinds of products, too.

It’s possible that the cyanobacteria could be grown inside fermentation vats and fed a diet of sugars, or grown in outdoor open ponds that rely on photosynthesis. That’s a critical business question, but Matrix hasn’t really crossed that bridge yet. McCormick said those are the kind of questions that will be worked out “downstream,” with partners who specialize in those kinds of capital infrastructure questions. Matrix, for now, is staying focused on its roots in the lab, working on strains of cyanobacteria that can modified for different purposes. McCormick definitely gives off a vibe of excitement, but she also is careful not to overpromise about what Matrix can do about the world’s climate change and energy problems.

“We definitely have the path forward for how we can take a scientific dream and turn it into a commercial reality. It’s really exciting,” McCormick says.

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