Shake It Up, Baby: Rock stars of biofuels unveil their latest hits

March 1, 2012 |

This past week in the Digest, we have been looking at the cost and timelines associated with what are broadly called the family of cellulase enzymes – enzymes that produce fermentable sugars from cellulose. We profiled an update from Novozymes, as well as the latest from Genencor, Dyadic, DSM and others, in The Enzyme Wars. In “Hemingway’s Cats,” we have also looked at systems in that grew enzymes within the plant itself.

Today, we begin a three-part series, “Shake It Up, Baby”, looking at some of the newest and hottest alternatives to the more established routes to advanced biofuels and chemicals.

Part I – I Want a New Bug

In Part I, today, “I Want a New Bug,” we look at the formation of Lygos, and the magic bugs, coming primarily out of the Keasling Lab at Berkeley and JBEI, that produce biofuels and renewable chemicals directly from sugar and cellulose without using an enzymatic process.

(“I want a New Bug” also refers, in part, to the announced licensing deal between Sapphire Energy and Earthrise Nutritionals, which will bring spirulina, a long-time popular form of cyanobacteria, for the first time into the cauldron of invention over at Sapphire’s HQ.)

Part II – “Chain-Chain-Chain, Chain of Fuels

In Part II, tomorrow – “Chain, Chain, Chain – Chain of Fuels,” we look at the latest on consolidated bioprocessing, in which a single organism both produced a fermentable sugar, and then ferments it; and we also look at the timelines and costs associated with producing enzymes from the target biomass itself. Specifically, we’ll highlight the latest on Mascoma and Sud-Chemie.

Part III – ‘[LL] Cool Planet Rocks the Bells”

In Part III, Monday, “‘[LL] Cool Planet Rocks the Bells” we look in-depth at the mysterious world of CoolPlanet Biofuels to discover what is causing companies like Google, BP, Constellation Energy and NRG to invest in a company that says it can sustainably produce up to 3,000 gallons per acre of renewable gasoline from giant miscanthus.

Part I – I Want a New Bug

In California, the Joint BioEnergy Institute has spun off a new company called Lygos, aimed at developing high efficiency, novel processes to produce renewable chemicals tapping its expertise in synthetic biology and metabolic engineering.

Lygos is the first spin-out from JBEI, a DOE research center established in 2007 to pursue breakthroughs in the production of cellulosic biofuels. The five company co-founders include Jay Keasling, director of JBEI and a co-founder of Amyris and LS9; Jeffrey “Clem” Fortman, Leonard Katz, Eric Steen and Jeffrey Dietrich. Fortman is now full-time at Lygos and serves as the company’s CEO.

Lygos cofounders Jay Keasling, Clem Fortman, Jeffrey Dietrich, Eric Steen and Leonard Katz (Credit: Roy Kaltschmidt/Berkeley Lab)

All are well known in the community. Keasling is one the the rock stars of biofuels and renewable chemicals, and selected as one of the Top 100 People in Bioenergy this past year in the Digest.

Katz is research director at the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC), an NSF-funded program within UC Berkeley.

Steen, Dietrich and Fortman are postdocs at JBEI who come out of the UC Berkeley graduate school factory. Steen was active in work with LS9 that produced a one-step process that makes biodiesel directly from sugars, and Steen, Fortman and Keasling were writing together as far back as 2008 on the need to expand the biofuels portfolio beyond ethanol by tapping engineered microorganisms to produce other potential fuel molecules. We first spotted Dietrich and Steen back in 2009 when they were among the creators of Elysium Renewables, which won a $50K grant to explore the formation of a company around Dietrich’s PhD work.

The Lygos technology

The technology utilizes a class of proteins called polyketide synthases (PKS), that have been used for eons in the biopharma world because of their ability, as their name suggests, to produce polyketides, which are a backbone material for the production of about a zillion renewable chemicals.

Here’s the breakthrough: the team has figured out a method of systematically modifying the PKS process. Essentially turning PKS from a little organ grinder that produces a given tune, into a piano that can play a huge range of music.

What can they produce? For now, they are focused on nylon precursors, pollsters, styrene and propylene. But they have capabilities to produce not only substitute molecules that are used in everyday plastics and consumer products – they have the ability to produce novel molecules, which is to say molecules that we know about but have not been commercially feasible to produce in the past.

Nylon itself, was at one stage a novel molecule. Look what industry has thought up to do with that molecule. Or polyethylene, to give another example. The breakthrough that led to the establishment of nylon was not just the foundational chemistry that produced the molecule at all – but the invention of a cost-effective way to make it.

“This is the future of chemical manufacturing,” CEO Clem Fortman, told the LBL in-house publication team in an article on the company’s formation. “Oil is becoming expensive, and at some point it will be depleted. Sugar is getting more expensive, but it’s still lagging way behind oil.”

Lygos’ progress to date

The company is still in the lab stage, is fundraising now after raising grant and seed money. They are located in the QB3 East Bay Innovation Center in Berkeley.

More about JBEI

JBEI is one of three Bioenergy Research Centers established by the DOE’s Office of Science in 2007. It is a scientific partnership led by Berkeley Lab and includes the Sandia National Laboratories, the University of California campuses of Berkeley and Davis, the Carnegie Institution for Science, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. DOE’s Bioenergy Research Centers support multidisciplinary, multi-institutional research teams pursuing the fundamental scientific breakthroughs needed to make production of cellulosic biofuels, or biofuels from nonfood plant fiber, cost-effective on a national scale.

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