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! [...]