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French Synthetic Biology Company Announces Proof-of-Concept of Process to Produce Isobutene from Sugars; New Pathway for Renewable Hydrocarbons

Global Bioenergies, a French startup located on the Genopole campus close to Paris, announced the proof-of-concept of a synthetic metabolic pathway for producing isobutene, a key chemical building block that can be converted into transportation fuels, polymers and various commodity chemicals.

Global Bioenergies’s pathway involves enzymes carrying out reactions unobserved in nature. The process—essentially a biological analog of the Fischer-Tropsch process, but one that does not require a high-temperature step—involves the production of a gas that spontaneously volatilizes during the reaction. This characteristic of the process eliminates two major costs associated with fermentative pathways that produce a liquid product:

  • Inhibition due to accumulation of the product during the reaction, limiting overall yield.

  • Product purification (distillation in the case of ethanol).

The overall equation for the isobutene production process developed by Global Bioenergies is:

C6H12O6 C4H8 + 2 CO2 + 2 H2O

The process is designed to be used downstream from three sugar production pathways: sugar, starch and cellulose. The process can thus be used with cellulosic biomass, following pretreatment and hydrolysis.

In conjunction with the proof-of concept, Philippe Marlière, cofounder and initiator of the project, announced the establishment of the scientific advisory board for the company:

  • Dr. Bernard Badet heads a research group at the Institut de Chimie des Substances Naturelles (Gif-sur-Yvette, France) that is interested in the understanding of the enzyme mechanism towards the development of chemical tools for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes.

  • Prof. Donald Hilvert heads a research group at the ETH Zürich (Zürich, Switzerland). His research program focuses on understanding how enzymes work and evolve and on mimicking the properties of these catalysts in the laboratory.

  • Prof. Jean-Marc Paris led the R&D division responsible for antibiotic discovery at Rhône Poulenc Rorer before joining Rhodia, where he worked as Scientific Director for organic chemistry and biotechnologies. He is honorary Professor at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Chimie de Paris.

  • Prof. Dieter Söll heads a research laboratory at Yale University in New Haven (Connecticut, USA), investigating the biocatalytic and evolutionary basis of protein biosynthesis. Prof. Söll is a member of the US Academy of Sciences.

  • Dr. Jean Weissenbach is the Director of Genoscope, the French genome sequencing center, which he founded in 1997. Now part of the Genomics Institute of the CEA, Genoscope is searching new enzyme activities using genomics and large scale experimentation. Dr. Weissenbach is a member of the French Academy of Sciences.

We are very proud to have reached this key milestone in advance on schedule. We have benefited from the assistance of Genoscope and of the analytical chemistry platform of Evry-Val d’Essonne University. The bioproduction of a gaseous hydrocarbon will make it possible to obtain pure products at high yield and low cost.

—Macha Anissimova, Head of Research

The data on isobutene formation presented by Global Bioenergies are convincing, and I am now impatient to see the process optimized and scaled up.

—Prof. Dieter Söll


John L.

Isobutene has a boiling temperature of -7°C, and is insoluble in water. That's an elegant way to separate the hydrocarbon from the fermenting organism. Cool.

Can anyone provide references to reactions which transform isobutene into a readily-combustible liquid fuel? I'm guessing that a full polymerization to butyl rubber is undesirable (unless you're rebuilding the rocket motor from Space Ship One).


"..spontaneously volatilizes during the reaction.."

That IS key. This solves those problems that they mention and it makes for a continuous process that requires less energy. Most excellent!


Isobutene + ethanol = ETBE (totally biofuel)
Isobutene + methanol = MTBE

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