For much of last week I – along with more than 700 other delegates – attended the 34th eponymous Symposium on Biotechnology for fuels and chemicals in the USA. The attendees were fairly evenly split between academia, industry, students and ‘Government’, while the country mix was interesting, with non-US representation mainly (in order) from Brazil, Korea, Canada, Denmark and Sweden, and with just 7 UK representatives.

In a very interesting plenary, David Glassner from Gevo described some large-scale processes for producing lactate (hence polylactate) and isobutanol in yeast. A 22 million gallon per year facility is being constructed! Many other talks followed a similar pattern, as microbial strain engineering based on systems biology modelling, pathway and enzyme engineering and ’omics were used to create strains with excellent potential and prowess, many of which were progressing to large-scale trials. Examples included 1,4-butanediol from Genomatica (and see the paper), 2,5-furan dicarboxylic acid at Bird Engineering (and paper) and a variety of long-chain alkanes, esters and fatty alcohols from LS9 (and representative paper). What is clear is that substantial progress is being made in developing processes for industrial biotechnology, and that they can only become more economic as the feedstocks for the petrochemical processes that might otherwise be used to make them increase in cost. One speaker pointed out that during one single 3h symposium session the world would use 12 million barrels of oil, or 4 supertankers’ worth!

Novel (and high-throughput) analytical procedures also featured heavily in the presentations, as did genome-scale modelling (not least of algae and cyanobacteria), while I also enjoyed a presentation on computational enzyme design by Andre Zanghellini, first author of this paper and now at Arzeda.

A particularly interesting session involved a description (and general discussion) of 6 of the major bioenergy centres that have been set up, starting with an excellent presentation of our own BSBEC by Angela Karp. The other centres were the Biomass Technology Research Centre of AIST at Higashi (presented by Kinya Sakanishi), the DOE BioEnergy Science Centre at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Paul Gilna), the Joint BioEnergy Institute (Blake Simmons), the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Centre (Tim Donohue) and the Energy Biosciences Institute (Chris Somerville). Overall a very impressive list, and huge advances have been made in a very short time. I was very pleased to see that the UK programme could very much hold its own, despite its comparatively small size. There were far too many highlights to mention, but a couple that I did enjoy were the use of base rather than acid to improve pre-treatment (more interesting and important than it may sound!) and a study of plants for unusual lignin linkages; Angelica sinsensis has some 3% of ester rather than ether linkages, that are considerably easier to hydrolyse and this is under genetic control – so there are some obviously useful consequences. I suspect that a wider survey of the plant kingdom, especially  in terms of understanding the constituents of plants already used in economic botany and thus with at least some useful agronomic performance, would turn up other important and relevant genes.

I also noted the press release on the master plan for the Norwich Research Park, and (given my interests in computational approaches to complex systems) enjoyed a paper from Uri Alon’s group on multiobjective optimisation and trade-offs, an excellent summary of the necessity for (and benefits of) making source code available for validating scientific conclusions, and a blog post on crowd sourcing in bioinformatics.

BBSRC’s Business Interaction Unit has recently been investing some time in attracting industrialists from European companies to serve on its peer review committee Pool of Experts. The aim is to increase industry representation in our grant assessment process and to help with industrial relevance considerations. I encourage industrialists to consider applying for this role through our conventional Appointments Board process. For an informal discussion about the role, the BBSRC contact is Rachel Spencer.

Finally, as Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said in a speech last week, “If the rest of Britain performed like our research and publishing community, we would have rather fewer economic problems to tackle”.

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