Birth of a feedstock: SGB, Yulex set to to double guayule rubber yield via accelerated breeding platform

November 11, 2013 |

guayuleGoodbye, wild plant, full of promise.

Hello, domesticated and optimized plant-soldier in the struggle to make rubber for a planet with limited acreage and rapidly-expanding demand.

In biofuels and related industries, there may be a hundred feedstocks or so. Some developed, some merely domesticated, some hardly improved over the wild types in the field.

100 feedstocks in what – 10,000 years since the dawn of agriculture? When does a “plant of promise” become a feedstock. That’s when a group of developers take a plant off “the shelf of the possible” and putting it into a modern breeding program, based on the latest genetics, to coax the last gram of yield — and it’s big news when it happens. That’s the story of jatropha in recent years — that’s the story of algae.

And so we move forward with the tale of guayule.

That’s pronounced “Y-U-Lee” for those outside its heartland in the American Southwest and northern Mexico.

Guayule is a distant relative of the sunflower and the zinnia, originating from the genetic hotbed of Mexico and is now grown in the US. Why of interest? It’s a source of rubber — and residual biomass for biofuels.

It started to get attention as an industrial crop in World War One and Two when access to traditional rubber supplies was interrupted. You may recall seeing or hearing of tire and rubber drives during the Second World War. Another form of response was to scale up guayule production in California.

Like other technologies that flourish in wartime when supply chains are disrupted, guayule’s fortunes crashed after the war when access to traditional tree-grown rubber from Asian plantations was restored. The trouble with guayule has nothing to do with the usefulness of the rubber. It’s just that the yields were too low from native plants as they had evolved in Mexico.

“When they looked at guayule,” said Yulex CEO Jeff Martin, “they only looked to large commodity markets, like tires. They didn’t see the economics, and didn’t put the effort into it. When Yulex started out, it was not just acreage for tire markets — but novel applications like medical devices, consumer products. No one envisioned those markets and therefore made the investments. We’ve built up markets and demand — now, the last stage is the crop improvement.”

So, what’s the news?

In California, SGB and Yulex Corporation announced a collaboration to establish a genomics and molecular breeding platform focused on accelerating the crop improvement of Guayule as a sustainable source of biorubber that can replace traditional tropical or petroleum-based rubber for medical, consumer and industrial markets.

With traditional rubber, the product is tapped from the tree — in this case, the shrub is harvested, rubber extracted, and the remaining biomass is available for fuels, power and other biomaterial uses, as a cellulosic biomass source.

The goal? One metric ton of product per acre per year — competitive with typical rubber yields out of Southeast Asia — by 2018-19. And progress from around half that yield between now and then.

So, there are several story lines of interest to follow.

One — tracking the evolution of SGB, known to this point as a developer of jatropha — into a genomics-based biotechnology company that can apply its plant breeding techniques and genetics knowledge across a set of under-developed feedstocks.

Two – tracking the development of Yulex — which is developing not only the guayule plant, but the development of novel materials and even manufacturing capabilities — in a fully-integrated play.

Three, guayule itself and its opportunities in the biomaterials and biofuels markets. Let’s begin there.

Changing the outcomes, developing the crop

So, here’s Yulex — aimed at establishing guayule as a viable feedstock for the bioeconomy.

But it is not a case of some Pick-A-Wild-Plant 1.0 business model. That’s how you build a Blunder Crop instead of a Wonder Crop, and many have tried it: find the wild plant, or one with only a limited domestication program, maybe an artful breeder or two at work somewhere; grow seed, make promises, and cross your fingers. Yields fall short of expectations, costs are not in line, potential customers turn away, the world moves on to the next wonder crop.

By contrast, Yulex has been hard at work on plant yields — not only to improve economics, but to broaden the geographies. Last year, the company landed a $6.9m grant from the USDA, in partnership with Cooper Tire, for research on guayule natural rubber and the use of the guayule plant as a feedstock for biofuels. The project will also produce a life cycle analysis.

This past spring, Yulex announced a $3 million, five-year grant to the University of Arizona focused on breeding and agronomic development of Guayule for the production biorubber of medical, consumer, and industrial applications.

Yulex and the University are applying classical breeding along with modern tools for marker assisted breeding to Guayule lines to select traits for the crop improvement program. Guayule is an industrial crop that does not compete against food or fiber crops. It is a renewable source of natural rubber latex that can replace petroleum-based synthetics, decrease imported tropical rubber, and requires relatively little water with no pesticides.

So why now with SGB, and how does it relate to the University of Arizona program?

In short, now is the time for acceleration. Candidly, Martin says, “there’s the program with Versalis. We’ve not made the announcement where the plant will be built, but we are targeting Southern Europe and we have done trial plantings in Italy this year. It will be a large acreage, and we are in touch with regional governments.”

Last spring, we put a grant together for the University of Arizona — it was for a traditional plant breeding program,” said Yul;ex’s Jeff Martin. “This is for acceleration. It fits in with the UA program, and also with the USDA grant. USDA is cooperating in this, and we’re having calls between the players.”

As SGB’s Eric Mathur explains, “part of the collaboration is to genetically characterize the germplasm collection.” As SBG Kirk Haney adds, “Here’s SGB. You take a wild crop with no molecular tools, and
launch a program in 5 years. That platform is applicable to other crops, but we’ve been laser focused on jatropha as our first crop. Now, it’s time.”

Mathur notes, “there are lots of similarities between the two crops. There are diploids, the genome size is similar, they were at a similar stage of domestication, there is tremendous room for improvement. But guayule has much more complex genetics, like energy cane. The tools to unravel all those details have just started becoming available in the past year. Up until now, it’s been a breeder’s art. Now we can add a quantitative element to that art.”

The SGB – Yulex partnership

SGB will apply a non-GMO technology platform that combines breeding and selection with genomic technologies, including high throughput genotyping, genome wide trait association studies, genomic selection and proprietary plant re-domestication methods to the improvement of Guayule.

The company will identify genetic markers that represent increased rubber yield and use that to produce new cultivars that express that yield under commercial conditions. SGB will also implement novel breeding strategies designed to accelerate the development of improved cultivars with higher rubber yield productivity, consistency and increased stress tolerance.

Building capacity: The Yulex-Versalis partnership

In January of this year, Versalis and Yulex announced that they had formed a strategic partnership to manufacture guayule-based biorubber materials and will launch an industrial production complex in Southern Europe.

Versalis, rebranded from the former Polimeri Europa, is the largest Italian chemical company and a subsidiary of Eni – and is the second largest producer of elastomers in Europe. Versalis operates at an international level and is heavily involved in the renewable chemicals industry with Matrìca (a 50:50 joint venture with Novamont) for which a biorefinery at Porto Torres, Sardinia, Italy is being built and ready for production by end of 2013.

Versalis will manufacture materials for various applications: after an initial focus on consumer and medical specialty markets, the target is to optimize the process to reach the tire industry.
The partnership will leverage Yulex’s core competencies including crop science and biorubber extraction technologies, to boost Versalis’ bio-based portfolio. The investment will include an ambitious research project to develop technologies targeting the tire industry.

Building markets: The Patagonia-Yulex partnership

Last November, Patagonia and Yulex Corporation announced the introduction of a guayule-based wetsuit, a renewable biorubber that is the first alternative to traditional fossil-based neoprene. Yulex’s biorubber material is made from guayule, a renewable, non-food crop that requires very little water, is grown domestically in the US, uses no pesticides, and in comparison to traditional neoprene, has a clean manufacturing process.

Initially, the new suits will be available in Japan only. In Spring 2013, surfers will be able to order custom suits out of Patagonia’s wetsuit facility in Ventura, CA, with a global rollout to follow.

“When we started to build wetsuits we knew that neoprene, by nature of its production, was the most environmentally harmful part the product. Our initial approach was to use innovative materials, like wool, that are highly insulating and allowed us to use as little neoprene as possible. But we quickly realized that we needed to create a new material that could be a true alternative to neoprene,” notes Jason McCaffrey, Patagonia’s surf director.

The bottom line

Yulex has done a lot of heavy lifting to develop capacity and markets. From here, a lot of the work has to be about guayule itself. That is to say, the yields, the yields, the yields. No yield, no grower adoption, no feedstock, no business. You get the idea.

Not entirely surprising that they would turn to SGB, after that company’s success to date with jatropha, a shrub that originated from the same neck of the woods.

It’ll take several years to uncover the opportunities in the genome – mark them, breed for them, build hybrid vigor, and optimize the plant for new geographies. For now, the yields have been highly promising.

Key performance indicators to watch? The proposed 2016 development of new processing capacity with Versalis. Steady increases in grower adoption, both in the Arizona/Mexico homeland and in newer geographies (especially Southern Europe). And then, the hoped for big bang in 2018-19 – if the plant crosses the ton per acre per year product threshold.

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