UNL-affiliated company hopes genetics improves ethanol production

Source: By RICHARD PIERSOl, Lincoln Journal Star • Posted: Monday, July 30, 2012

A California company with a stake owned by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln announced it has discovered a yeast gene that can increase ethanol production yield by up to 34 percent when it’s inserted into yeast and properly modulated.

iDiverse, of Del Mar, Calif., was founded on genetic technology licensed from the UNL in 2005. It was based on research done by Marty Dickman, who worked at UNL for 18 years, but is now at Texas A&M.

“Our intent is to commercialize our improved yeast through partnerships with major corporations involved in the production of fuel ethanol from corn and sugarcane, but more importantly, with companies producing fuel ethanol from biomass,” said John Serbin, chief business officer, in an email. “If we are lucky enough to push our technology into commercialization, UNL will be paid a royalty attributed to the technology we licensed. In addition, UNL is also a shareholder in iDiverse, which may provide additional monetary benefit to the university.”

So far the company has not any money, so UNL has yet to cash in on its investment. While UNL’s 5 percent stake has been disclosed, the identities of some investors are protected by confidentiality agreements, Serbin said. The majority of financing has come from principals: President and CEO John Burr, Serbin and Dan Chambers, who is general counsel, Serbin said

iDiverse describes its proprietary technology — known as ProTectAll — as genetic sequences which, when placed in cells, allow the transformed cells to fend off a variety of stresses that occur in bioproduction. “This will enable these cells to produce more product (ethanol, enzyme, or pharmaceutical) than comparable cells lacking this genetic sequence,” the company says on its website.

“In its current embodiment, it allows yeast to produce significantly more ethanol under the severe conditions of high concentrations of acetic acid and low pH,” Serbin said. “These critical conditions occur when fuel ethanol is produced from corn or sugarcane and are yet more severe in the newest generation of fermentation processes using lignocellulosic biomass as feedstock. Our constructs have been tested in several commercial yeasts. We believe that they can improve the performance of any yeast facing lethal bioproduction environments.”

Burr said this could be “huge” for the ethanol industry.

Two years ago, the company described results of a first-generation construct based on a mammalian gene inserted into yeast. That mammalian gene research was done by Dickman at UNL. The use of a yeast gene, discovered by Richard Schneeberger, head of technology development at iDiverse, is an improvement for a clear reason Serbin described.

“As you probably know, after fuel ethanol is produced from corn, the remaining solid material is called dried distillers grain and is sold as cattle feed to feedlots,” he said in an email. “If this material contained yeast harboring a mammalian gene, a large number of regulatory hurdles would have to be overcome before this material could be resold. This approach was deemed as too expensive and time-consuming.

So, after demonstrating the proof of concept of the technology using mammalian genes in 2010, the company spent two years looking for and then testing yeast genes with similar characteristics to the mammalian construct, Serbin said.

The technology is also ready to be used in applications beyond fuel ethanol, Burr said. Those include the bioproduction of industrial enzymes, research reagents, and pharmaceuticals.

In agricultural applications, iDiverse says it has tested the ability of its proprietary genetic technology to protect plants against the stresses of fungi, drought, heat and cold.

“We believe that the breadth of protection provided by our genetic sequences will be considerably greater than we have currently demonstrated,” the company said on its website. “If we are successful in proving this in large-scale field trials, we may be able to help expand the growing area for a variety of crops.”

How long until it gets some commercial licensing revenue?

“Unknown,” replied Serbin. “Some major players are testing our materials now and we are in discussions with more right now. Everything will depend on the success of their evaluations. Just a guess. If everything goes super well, maybe 12-18 months to commercialization.”