More from the World Congress in Washington

Day two of BIO’s World Congress on Industrial Biotech brought more announcements from Genomatica and BIO itself, and day three promises exciting news from Ceres — The Energy Crop Company, according to sources.

Genomatica successfully scaled its first commercial product — 1,4 butanediol (BDO), a product with a $3 billion market used to make spandex, automotive plastics, running shoes, etc. — to pilot scale, running multiple successful batches of 3,000 liters. Genomatica uses computer aided analysis, modeling and simulation to design highly engineered microbes and has a vision that microbial productivity will increase the way chip memory did for computers.

Ceres has developed a new plant trait that improves salt-tolerance for energy grasses, including sorghum, miscanthus and switchgrass. Researchers tested the effects of very high salt concentrations and seawater from the Pacific Ocean, which contains mixtures of salts in high-concentration, on improved energy grass varieties growing in greenhouses. “Soils containing salt and other growth-limiting substances restrict crop production in many locations in the world. This genetic breakthrough provides new opportunities to overcome the effects of salt,” said Flavell. In food crops, Ceres has confirmed the trait in rice to date and is preparing additional testing in others.

During the lunch plenary session on Tuesday, Raoul Oberman of McKinsey & Co. released the results of a survey of BIO member companies on the future of the industry. Notably, the results included responses to the question, “By the year 2025, what will be the dominant fossil fuel alternative?” The majority (60 percent) of industry respondents said “Bio-substitutes for gasoline,” while 19 percent cited biodiesel and 16 percent said electric vehicles. McKinsey’s analysis showed that on a land use efficiency analysis, electric vehicles powered by biomass achieved 37 miles per acre while biofuels achieved 30.

More than half (55 percent) of respondents said there is currently insufficient capital to support growth of the industry. Three quarters of respondents (76 percent) supported “Governments create long-term regulatory frameworks and offer incentives” as a solution, and two thirds also supported “Science offers clear evidence of biofuel efficiency and carbon impact” as a driver of investment.

You can view the presentation of the findings by Oberman at McKinsey Industry Survey on Biofuel Outlook 2010.

BIO also presented the 2010 George Washington Carver Award to MIT Professor Greg Stephanopoulos, a pioneer in metabolic engineering and commercialization of industrial biotech processes.

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Biofuels Feedstocks – Yield Matters

The following post was submitted by Richard Hamilton, president and CEO of Ceres, Inc.

Technology is playing a critical role in maximizing the inherent advantages of dedicated energy crops. Through advanced plant breeding, public and private researchers are increasing yields both in terms of tons per acre (field yields) and in terms of gallons per ton (through traits that improve conversion). Higher yields not only have a significant impact on reducing production costs of cellulosic biofuels, but there are obvious benefits to land use as well. We will need fewer acres to produce the same amount of biofuels. See the impact of yield with this land-area calculator.

The advantages of dedicated energy crops are well-established. This January, it even became clear that researchers may have been too conservative in their predictions. A large, on-farm study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that switchgrass produces 540% more energy than is used to grow, harvest and process it into ethanol (these calculations were based on actual costs and production data). Likewise greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were 94% lower than from gasoline.

The most exciting part of this analysis is that this was a baseline study using seed varieties and agronomic practices developed for use in pastures rather than biofuel production.

Today, genomics-based technologies are being used by companies like Ceres to track desirable traits at the DNA level through generations in plant breeding programs, known as marker-assisted breeding. The application of this technology will cut years off development timelines. Many energy crops have undergone little improvement, and large gains are already being made. The first high-yielding dedicated energy crops are scheduled for release next year. Further down the road, biotech traits will offer continued yield and conversion advantages. Predictions of net energy ratios of 10X don’t see so far off anymore.