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BP Enters Two Biotech Collaborations: Feedstocks for Cellulosic Ethanol and Bioconversion of Subsurface Hydrocarbons

BP has entered two collaborations with biotech companies: the first with Mendel Biotechnology to develop biofeedstocks for the production of cellulsoic ethanol; the second with Synthetic Genomics to develop biological conversion processes for subsurface hydrocarbons that could lead to cleaner energy production and improved recovery rates. BP is also investing in each company.

The collaboration with Mendel Biotechnology, a functional genomics company, is focusing on accelerating a breeding program for perennial grasses that can be used as feedstock for the production of cellulosic ethanol. Mendel will establish breeding stations in the Midwest and the Southeast United States, and accelerate breeding collaborations with groups in Germany and China.

Mendel’s goals are to increase the yield of biomass crops without increasing the input costs; develop varieties that are better suited for processing to fermentable sugars; and to produce plants with enhanced biotic and abiotic stress tolerance.

Founded in 1997, Mendel Biotechnology has identified and patented the use of genes that control many aspects of plant growth and development, and is using such inventions to develop or co-develop new plant varieties. Mendel is developing new seed products for the emerging bioenergy market, focused on seeds and feedstock products for the cellulosic ethanol industry.

In March 2007, Mendel acquired the entire Miscanthus breeding program from Tinplant Biotechnik und Pflanzenvermehrung GmbH, a German breeding and plant science company. Miscanthus is one of the leading candidates for dedicated energy crops. (Earlier post.)

The long-term research and development deal between BP and Synthetic Genomics is focused first on gaining a better understanding of the natural microbial communities in various hydrocarbon formations such as oil, natural gas, coal and shale. Such an understanding would enable the enhancement or increased production of the subsurface hydrocarbons.

Synthetic Genomics, which was founded by genome pioneer J Craig Venter, Ph.D., will use its expertise in environmental DNA sequencing and microbial cell culturing to produce the first comprehensive genomic study of microbial populations living in these environments.

The second phase of the BP/Synthetic Genomics program will be a series of field pilot studies of the most promising bioconversion approaches. BP and Synthetic Genomics will then seek to jointly commercialize the bioconversion of subsurface hydrocarbons into cleaner energy products.

The partners expect the first two phases of R&D will be completed in three and a half years. The success of the pilot field studies will lead to the third phase of R&D that will encompass the commercialization of the relevant technologies.

We believe that one of the most promising solutions to producing cleaner fuels will be found through genomic-driven advances. Through our research collaboration with BP, we will achieve a new and better understanding of the subsurface hydrocarbon bioconversion process which we are confident will yield substantial cleaner energy sources.

—Dr. Venter

The overall goal of Synthetic Genomics is to discover and/or design new genomes that will code for new types of cells with desired properties for bioenergy or specific chemical production.

Scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) recently filed patent applications to protect the broad method it plans to use to create a synthetic organism. Dr. Venter, who led the private sector effort to sequence the human genome, announced in 1999 that he would work toward that goal.

In 2002, Dr. Venter created three non-profit organizations: the TIGR Center for the Advancement of Genomics (TCAG), the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives (IBEA), and the J. Craig Venter Science Foundation.

The IBEA research institution was focused on using microbes, microbial genomics, microbial pathways, and plants as potential solutions to carbon sequestration and clean energy production. Researchers in the Institute also focused on developing potential new synthetic cells.

In 2003, IBEA announced that it had “significantly advanced” methods to improve the speed and accuracy of genomic synthesis. The IBEA researchers assembled the 5,386 base pair bacteriophage φX174 (phi X), from short, single strands of synthetically produced, commercially available DNA (known as oligonucleotides) using an adaptation of polymerase chain reaction (PCR), known as polymerase cycle assembly (PCA), to build the phi X genome.

In 2004, Dr. Venter consolidated the three organizations into a single research institute: the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI). In 2006, the J. Craig Venter Institute, The Institute of Genomic Research (TIGR) and the J. Craig Venter Science Foundation (JCVSF) consolidated into one organization: the J. Craig Venter Institute. The research organization formerly known as JCVI was renamed The Center for the Advancement of Genomics (TCAG).

Synthetic Genomics has its own internal scientific team and also sponsors research at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI). Synthetic Genomics handles the prosecution of any patent applications covering intellectual property developed by the JCVI under a Sponsored Research Agreement between Synthetic Genomics and JCVI. Rights to any resulting patents are assigned to Synthetic Genomics.


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