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Ceres Hits Milestone in Switchgrass Genomics Program; Focus on Cellulosic Biofuels

Ceres, Inc. has reached a major milestone in their switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) genomics program for enhancing biomass yield, completing the analysis of more than 12,000 switchgrass genes and characterizing the genetic variation associated with them.

Switchgrass is a perennial grass native to the prairies of North America and has been identified by the US Department of Energy as the primary perennial plant species for development as a dedicated cellulosic energy crop. Switchgrass has the potential to produce cellulose for biofuels such as ethanol and butanol on lands incapable of supporting traditional food crops.

The large-scale Ceres switchgrass sequencing effort has utilized libraries of full-length cDNAs rather than ESTs (partial genes), in order to capture information not only on complete gene sequences and encoded proteins but also on genetic variation associated with these genes that enables targeted, marker-assisted breeding programs for switchgrass improvement.

The generation of large numbers of full-length cDNA sequences, which are notably absent from most high-throughput gene sequencing programs because of technical difficulties, represents an important component of Ceres’ intellectual property strategy. To date, Ceres has filed patent applications covering over 70,000 full-length plant genes from Arabidopsis, corn, soybean, wheat and cotton, amongst others.

These switchgrass sequences are being utilized in our integrated genomics platforms and high-throughput product development pipeline. Using the sequences of these genes as well as the physical clones of our proprietary collection of full- length plant genes enhances our leading position in dedicated energy crop genomics and will accelerate breeding and commercialization of elite switchgrass varieties. These genes may also be useful in improvement programs of other crops such as corn.

—Dr. Richard Hamilton, Chief Executive Officer of Ceres

In June, Ceres and The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation announced a broad, long-term collaboration for the development and commercialization of new, advanced biomass crops for fuel ethanol production.

The Noble Foundation is the world’s premier organization for conventional and molecular breeding of switchgrass and other perennial grass crops useful for renewable energy production. Combining the Noble Foundation’s extensive breeding infrastructure and experience base with Ceres’ advanced genomics technologies creates a powerful pipeline for commercializing improved energy crop varieties to meet the projected market for cellulosic ethanol.

Many speak of the potential for cellulosic ethanol production in the next decade. We will have advanced varieties in the near-term to assist in developing this industry. Seed of an advanced switchgrass variety, an initial product of this relationship, is already being multiplied in preparation for commercialization. This variety has been in development for a decade and consistently shows yield improvement of 20-35% over common varieties in comprehensive, multi-site field trials across the southeastern US.

—Richard Hamilton

Under the terms of the agreement, Ceres will obtain an exclusive license to elite switchgrass germplasm and advanced varieties developed by breeders at the Noble Foundation as well as to varieties in-licensed to Noble’s breeding programs.

Initial projects under the collaboration agreement will expand upon the conventional and molecular breeding program at the Noble Foundation through integration of markers and other genomic technologies for development of enhanced switchgrass varieties and other energy crops for biomass and ethanol production. In addition, the Noble Foundation will undertake a practical, applied program for development of agronomic systems and best management practices aimed at optimizing biomass production and agriculture producer-education.

The switchgrass sequencing project is part of an agreement with the USDA Western Regional Research Center and of the collaboration with The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation.

Ceres, Inc. is a privately-held plant biotechnology company focused on energy production, agriculture, human health and nutrition. Ceres is developing energy crops such as switchgrass, miscanthus and poplar for cellulosic ethanol as well as leveraging its technologies into established multi-billion dollar markets through strategic partnerships. Since 2002, Ceres has been deploying its traits and technologies in traditional row crops such as corn and soybean as part of a multi-year, $137-million license-based agreement with Monsanto.



Reading through the tech speak, does this mean the generation of ethanol from switchgrass will be tuned so that only the genetically engineered switchgrass will work? Does the US want it's energy supply to be controlled by whoever holds the patent on some life form?
I think there needs to be an oversight by the government to make sure the ethics and the policy keep up with the science.
Having said that, I'm all for growing our own fuel. I'd just like to make the control of production more open.

Harvey D.


Your concerns are probably shared by many. Licensing improved feedstocks may create a multitude of obstructions, delays and extra cost to the development and production of cellulosic ethanol and n-butanol.

Whenever such reasearch is financed with government/public money, the end products should be made available (without restriction) to all and/or license protection be limited to 5 years.

allen Z

Patenting genes can be a minefield. All plants share gene sequences in various segments and to various degrees. If someone patents a gene for a sunflower that could be found in some tropical oil plant, what is the extent of control does the patent cover?
___Additionally, can switchgrass be surpassed be say, a stand of trees, or bamboo as in the case of Asia?


As capitalist as I am, patenting natural genes makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever.


"Under the terms of the agreement, Ceres will obtain an exclusive license to elite switchgrass germplasm and advanced varieties developed by breeders at the Noble Foundation as well as to varieties in-licensed to Noble’s breeding programs."

God forbid this genetically engineered switchgrass should drift on to your land. As in the case of GM corn, you will have to pay the patent owner because of the fact that this plant is growing on your property.

Monsanto will haunt you to the grave. Rest assured they will enforce their patent to the hilt.

Even if they could find some other way to "improve" switchgrass, rest assured they will go the GM route so that they can maximize their profits and charge others for the use of their genetically modified seed. It's not so much about improving the crop; it's about monopolizing the crop.

They are trying to patent up to 70,000 genes. Scary.


GM energy crops? What and why? Are they trying to GM the grass to be sweeter or grow faster?

These "zombie grass" doesnt sound good to me. There would be a disaster if theres any outbreak of GM grass, like 95% of all farmland are fully grown with these grass uncontrollable, for example.

Andrey Levin

One can not invent whatever is already existed (natural genes). You can only discover it. Specific genes combination is more patentable, but patent could be easily by-passed by altering secondary details. Patent law is very tricky, and US patent law and practice is just weird.

Any way, patent is agreement between particular government and inventor, specifying generally that invention should be disclosed to public, and government takes responsibility to enforce exclusive right of invention owner to commercialization for surprisingly short period – about 14-20 years from the patent application (copyright for, say, book, song, painting last 50 years after death of the author). After that period invention is free for use for everybody. In reality most of serious inventions, especially in highly regulated drug and GE, have only couple of years of invention protection to compensate for years of development, testing, patenting and approval.

Usually happens just opposite. The neighbor sues to death company which contaminates his lawn with GM plant.



What evidence do you have? Monsanto is one with the big pockets so I find it hard to believe that all these little farmers. The Canadian Supreme Court, for example, has upheld Monsanto's right to obtain damages.


You probably are referring to Monsanto vs. Percy Schmeiser suit. I agree it does sound weird.
I am not proficient in that field, but my impression from popular articles is that most of the European and handful of Asian countries have very strict regulation limiting use or import of GM agricultural products. A lot of shipment of US grown corn and soy bean were denied entry into this countries because stock was contaminated by cross-pollination from GM plants. On this basis numerous law suits were filed against GM seed providers. Also plentiful of law suits are also filed from organic food growers:

Hard to say who will win; we know that deep pocket not allways win. Sometime deep pocket is the one who pays for all.

allen Z

Nature already has "zombie grass". They are called aggressive invasive species.

Paul Dietz

GM energy crops? What and why? Are they trying to GM the grass to be sweeter or grow faster?

One idea I read about was splicing genes for high temperature cellulase enzymes into a plant. The plant would then make its own cellulase, but at normal temperatures it would be inactive. When the plant is harvested, the biomass would be heated, activating the enzymes.


I know this discussion was over 2 months ago, but in case anyone else happens across this mess...

1. Cellulosic ethanol can be produced from nearly any crop. It is NOT the case that only the genetically modified varieties will work. The genetic modifications will presumably improve traits such as yield and drought tolerance.

2. The idea that improved feedstocks will cause obstructions and delays is ridiculous. What is much more likely to be true is that the enhanced yield will make biomass crops economically feasible. Farmers will earn more money per hectare from thes crops, which will result in more acres being converted to biomass production. The opportunity for the farmers and the owners of biomass conversion facilities to make a profit is the motive that will drive the adoption of biofuels, and improving feedstocks will strengthen this incentive. If anything the company that sells the seed is the farthest away from the consumers money, which must be passed from the consumer to the filling station to the producer to the farmer, and finally to the seed company. This puts the seed company in a position where their product must provide real value to their customers.

3. Under normal management practices roundup ready crops don't take over fields, although there may be a few stray plants in ditches. Percy Schmeiser was found to have used roundup in a deliberate manner to cause the plants to take over his field. This was a clear case of intentional patent infringement. There is NO case of a farmer losing a suit to Monsanto or any other company because of a patented plant that was grown accidentally.

4. The switchgrass varieties licensed from the Noble Foundation were made using conventional plant breeding techniques. Patent rights for enhanced crops have been long established (by the Plant Patent Act of 1930 and Plant Variety Protection act of 1970). Having a patent on a variety doesn't establish a monopoly since farmers are always welcome to use the originals. All a patent does is grant the company the right to obtain a fair return for it's development efforts. As I mentioned before; seed companys don't have a 'power' position - if they want to make profits they need to show that farmers will benefit from using their products. If they try to charge more than a product is worth to the farmers, then the farmers simply won't buy it.

I hope that clears things up.

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