Synthetic biology company launches JV to commercialize gas-to-liquids bioconversion; isobutanol first target
28 March 2014
Synthetic biology company Intrexon Corporation has formed Intrexon Energy Partners (IEP), a joint venture with a group of external investors, to optimize and to scale-up Intrexon’s gas-to-liquids (GTL) bioconversion platform. IEP’s first target product is isobutanol for gasoline blending.
Intrexon’s natural gas upgrading program is targeting the development of an engineered microbial cell line for industrial-scale bioconversion of natural gas to chemicals, lubricants and fuels, as opposed to employing standard chemical routes. Intrexon says it has already achieved initial proof of concept with an engineered microbial host converting methane into isobutanol in a laboratory-scale bioreactor.
Intrexon says that its biocatalyst approach to GTL bioconversion reduces energy use, production costs, and waste while producing a single high value product. It thus offers economic advantages over traditional conversion platforms that rely on costly thermochemical catalytic processes, such as the Fischer-Tropsch method of carbon upgrading, or depend on available plant-based feedstocks. IEP will utilize natural gas as its feedstock—a less expensive carbon source than biomass or sugar-based technologies.
Methanotrophic bacteria oxidize methane as their sole carbon source to support cellular metabolism and growth. However, notes Intrexon, a lack of requisite tools and detailed microbial regulatory and physiological information make methanotrophs challenging to engineer genetically.
Intrexon developed a suite of tools enabling the rapid manipulation of methanotrophic organisms including gene knock in/out, direct transformation/electroporation, and plasmid-based expression systems.
Although Intrexon’s engineered methanotroph produces isobutanol, commercial scale-up is a challenge; expression of a heterologous pathway for product generation places additional metabolic burdens on the cell, as carbon is diverted from primary to exogenous metabolic pathways for product production.
Intrexon says that it has developed a fermentation bioreactor protocol that supports growth of an isobutanol producing engineered methanotroph at industrially relevant cell densities. In addition, the company is developing a high-throughput platform to test and iteratively to optimize media composition and strain performance while also facilitating rapid design and testing of new pathways for improved isobutanol production from engineered strains.
(Dr. Eli Groban, Intrexon’s Director of Metabolic Engineering and Systems Biology in the Industrial Products Division and leader of the methane bioconversion program is presenting on the company’s natural gas bioconversion platform at Bio’s upcoming World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology in Philadelphia in May. Prior to Intrexon, Groban was at LS9.)
Through an Exclusive Channel Collaboration (ECC) agreement, IEP will pay Intrexon a $25-million technology access fee to leverage the company’s synthetic biology capabilities, including the UltraVector platform, to further enhance the performance of a target biocatalyst.
In addition, IEP, in which Intrexon owns a 50% interest, will invest up to $50 million dollars in program development costs. Simultaneously, Intrexon entered into securities purchase agreements with the external investors in IEP for the private placement of 972,004 shares of common stock at a price of $25.72 per share for gross proceeds of $25 million.
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