Exploiting Fungal Factories for Future Energy
By Bill Moore
"En-zyme -- Any of numerous proteins or conjugated proteins produced by living organisms and functioning as biochemical catalysts."
That's the dictionary definition of what enzymes are and do, and according to Mark Emalfarb, the CEO of Dyadic International, they help make possible a wide range of products we often take for granted from "stone-washed blue jeans" to the ethanol many Midwesterners use in their cars.
In the case of Emalfarb's Jupiter, Florida-based firm, the biological "factories" that produce their proteins comes from a very special fungi found in the Russian Far East. Through careful bioengineering, the enzyme output of the C1 fungus has been significantly accelerated, and in this capability lies the potential to help turn forest and farm crop waste into carbon-neutral, renewable fuels.
The key to using the billions of tons of plant waste generated each year around the world is to find the right enzymes to convert the "sugars" found in the woody cellulose of all plants into a fermentable product. Today, modern ethanol distillers are limited to using the glucose found in the seeds of grains like corn and millet, and then only a portion of that. What is left is a by-product known as distiller's dried grain or DDG, which can be feed to cattle.
As phase one of Dyadic's research efforts into producing enzymes to help turn cellulose into ethanol, the company is working on an C1-based enzyme that will allow distillers to also extract usable glucose for ethanol production from DDG. This will enable them to improve their yields and thereby lower their overall ethanol production costs.
"But the holy grail of the ethanol business", Emalfarb explained "is to try to convert the corn stover, corn stalks, sugarcane bagasse, wheat straw or other cellulosic biomass into glucose that can be converted into ethanol. And for that purpose, enzymes are going to be a critical component in that manufacturing process, helping improve yields… efficiencies, driving costs down."
Dyadic's contribution to the search has been to improve the enzyme production capabilities of the wild C1 fungi by "several hundred fold", which they grow in large, 150,000 liter (40,000 gallons) tanks.
"We've engineered it by putting in recombinant DNA products, genes that are used to make cellulases [that] break down cellulose into glucose…" He noted that from this point on, the process of making ethanol is similar to current ethanol production where amylase enzymes are used to convert the starches in grains into their basic "sugar" components.
To extract the modified enzymes, Dyadic uses a medium on to which the fungi secrete their cellulose-converting proteins. The resulting liquid is purple in color. When the fermentation process is complete, the remaining dead fungus cells are spread on fields as a fertilizer.
Emalfarb told EV World that he believes Jupiter, Florida will be the next emerging biotech center. The State and Palm Beach County have raised some $600 million dollars to build a state-of-the-arts biotech complex. He also noted that the president of the world-famous Scripps Research Institute is chairman of Dyadic's advisory board.
Besides the company's cellulosic enzyme research, it is also investigating pharmaceutical applications of its technology using its little fungi bio-factories to produce a wide range of "new, better, cheaper, more affordable" drugs.
In 2005, Dyadic "sequenced" the 10-12,000 genes found in its patented C-1 fungi and according to Emalfarb identified a host of promising applications including the ability to make cellulosic ethanol more cheaply, which would make it more competitive with current grain-based practice.
The discovery of the C-1 fungus resulted from a worldwide search in cooperation with Russian scientists -- for an enzyme that could be used to fade and soften blue jean denim, along with khakis. While the wild version produced only small quantities of the desired enzyme, Dyadic had scientists in Wisconsin accelerate its mutation, creating "an Arnold Schwarzenegger on steroids".
"Over the last ten years, we've made it a super producer of proteins," Emalfarb said. "Now we can apply the molecular tools… putting new genes into it that encode for a new protein. Now we can not only over-produce the proteins that are in it by putting more copies of those genes in it to drive higher yields and lower cost but we can enter new genes into it from foreign sources…"
These include the possibility of human genes for making pharmaceutical medicines like insulin, was well as creating custom enzymes for the paper pulp industry that will enable it to reduce its energy inputs by 20-60 percent.
Although the hunt for the cause of "jungle rot" began more than half a century ago during the Second World War, research into cellulosic ethanol languished mainly because of cheap petroleum.
Emalfarb now sees a "tsunami" of converging forces including biotechnology and $60 oil prices driving accelerating interest in cellulosic ethanol research and investment.
Also a key factor, in his view, is shifting public sentiment and will.
"I think the public doesn't want to fight wars in Iraq when we can grow renewable resources here or find alternative ways to develop energy independence. And I think it's not just the Americans; it's also the Europeans, the Australians, the Japanese. You can grow these crops anywhere. You may grow corn in Iowa, but you may grow wheat in Russia. You may grow sugarcane in Brazil… or India. So, all those cellulose biomass substrates are capable of being converted into glucose from which ethanol can be produced."
Emalfarb sees the developing countries as someday growing much of their own fuel rather than relying so heavily on petroleum. He explained that Russian scientists, like their counterparts at NREL in Colorado, have been working on this process for decades, as well. Now all the factors from $60 oil to biotechnology to public sentiment are forcing the technology into the mainstream.
He sees the "tipping point" for when cellulosic ethanol investment becomes commercially attractive is when someone like Abengoa demonstrates it is economically viable. An even more important driver, in his view, will be the point at which society has to choose between "feeding ourselves" or "feeding our cars". Where conventional ethanol production makes use of valuable food crops, cellulosic production does not.
We wrap up the interview by asking Emalfarb if we are at risk of "over-hyping" the promise of cellulosic ethanol.
"I don't think we are over-hyping it. The question comes down to, do we have the political will as an American population to demand the use of alternative fuels, whether it be electric cars, traditional ethanol, cellulosic ethanol. Do we have what it takes to reduce our addiction to oil, to alleviate the problems we see in the Middle East by reducing the demand for their products, which gives them less bargaining power?
"Unlike the seventies, I think the political will is there, not only with the Congress and hopefully the president but with the people. I think that we are tired of sending our children to war in places that they don't need to be if we can all have an alternative route to protecting our energy sources in the world and I think that the world's changed…"
The entire interview is some 32-minutes in length and is some 7.7 MB in size. We encourage you to use the MP3 players in the right-hand column to listen to our discussion in its entirety if you're interested in learning more detail about Dyadic's research, production and marketing efforts. He talks about how the cellulosic ethanol and its supporting enzyme products are just at the beginning of their development phase, just as conventional ethanol production was thirty years ago when the process was much more costly and environmentally-unfriendly.
Let's hope he's right and that his little fungus friends can provide a saner, safer, more equitable path towards that future.