Biofuel beefed up by Biotech

Vilsack clears industrial biotech corn
Des Moines Register Blog.
1:30 PM, Feb 11, 2011 | by Philip Brasher |Agriculture and Alternative Energy

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has approved a biotech corn variety that was engineered solely for producing fuel ethanol. Companies that mill corn for breakfast cereals and other foods have been fighting the move for fear the grain will contaminate their supplies.
The corn… contains an enzyme that reduces the cost of turning the grain into the biofuel. That same enzyme can make the corn unsuitable for some food products, including cereals and coatings on corn dogs, according to millers. The company involved  insists that the corn will be kept away from food channels through the use of grower contracts and financial incentives and by growing it only in areas where food companies don’t procure their grain supplies.

The corn… will go by the trade name Enogen…

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  1. Interestingly, amylase is also a feed additive for cattle — it makes digestion more efficient! I have to wonder if Enogen maize would function similarly as a feed additive.
    Syngenta says the amylase enzyme is not active when the kernel is intact. It is most active, the company says, at certain levels of temperature, acidity and moisture found in ethanol factories.
    Nearly sounds like the bovine gastrointestinal tract.
    Any animal feed experts out there?

  2. I wonder why the developers of Enogen didn’t just put their trait into a male sterile line and use a colored kernel marker linked to the amylase gene? It would have been a bit more work but would have greatly reduced chances of accidental cross pollination with food corn and if there was cross pollination it would be obvious. Although, the grand majority of corn is feed, not food, and a little amylase won’t matter there – or even be beneficial as Eric says.

  3. B/c a bag of male sterile seeds produces a field that yields spectacularly low! =p (and any non biotech seed in the bag reduces the premium you can charge…)

  4. Wonder how this changes the net energy of corn ethanol? Currently there is negligible energy gain (i.e., just as much oil and natural gas goes in as comes out as ethanol).
    Biofuel crops need an energy return on invested of at least 5:1 to be useful to an industrial society. You may get this with oil seed crops in the temperate zone and sugar cane ethanol in Brazil but we are far from those levels for US corn, which is about 1:1.

  5. But can’t you put the amylase gene in the male sterile line? So the amount of seed needed to produce the final product is small? That is how male sterility works, right?

  6. Hence the parenthetical.
    One wonders if perhaps the concerns of the anti-amylase crowd (of which I guess I should belong if I’m to remain a true blue company man) are overblown and you actually need it to be more prevalent than one seed in a metric ton to be of any use.
    Plus there’d also be the yield hit you’d take by having non-elite hybrids in your field – I’m going out on a limb to guess that there aren’t any male sterile lines that have yield potentials up in the 300+ Bu/Ac range.
    Plus it would make the trait less licensable – I dunno to what extent Syngenta (it is Syngenta right?) are expected to utilize the same business model that has made Bt and RR as succesful as they are but would expect this may be the case – having it in MS lines may not be overly awesome.
    There’s also the small question of where exactly the gene expresses – where in the seed is it? If it’s pericarp based isn’t that entirely maternal tissue? (pericarp sort of makes sense as this allows for starch buildup during grain fill and release of amylase from the pericarp during processing)
    Jason – do you have a good source for your figures – I often wonder about the energy in to energy out of corn ethanol but have never been interested enough to dig out actual figures (I reckon the future of energy from corn isn’t in the cobs anyway but in getting the stover to produce viable amounts of energy in an economic fashion – two birds, one stone (although in this day and age I dunno why one’d want to go around killing birds with stones anyway, regardless of the stone to bird ratio))

  7. I’m thinking that if the amylase gene is linked to male sterility, it would be very difficult to pass the amylase gene to progeny.
    I like the visual marker idea. Fairly mature technology. Interestingly, GM amylopectin potatoes have a visual marker — flower color, I believe. That is how the Europeans discovered that one GM potato event was ‘contaminated’ by — drum roll — another GM potato event.
    Oh, the horror of it all.

  8. There’s lots of discussion about the relative efficiency of grain ethanol, and the ethics of turning food into fuel. But the real issue is how to make energy portable.
    It’s basically acceptable to produce a fuel with a net energy loss, so long as the result is an energy-dense result at reasonable cost.
    I’m uncomfortable with the fact that grain ethanol requires a subsidy to be implemented. Open markets tend to be more intelligent than governments in making economic decisions. We supposedly learned that lesson from the fall of the USSR and the rise of China’s affluence.

  9. The trouble is we are using portable forms of energy, i.e., diesel and natural gas, to make another portable form, ethanol. This is not a sensible energy conversion program. We are taking fossil fuels and trying to “amp” them up using corn+sunlight. The math doesn’t work out even in the best of circumstances. All this shows is that the inmates are in charge of the asylum.

  10. This article seems to suggest that corn ethanol production is getting better and that a LCA shows ~24% reduction in GHG emission as compared to gasoline aswell as significantly lower use of fossil fuels per MJ energy produced (conversion here seems to be ~0.5 MJ of fossil fuel to produce 1MJ of energy from ethanol (with the rest being made up by “renewable” which in the case of corn ethanol is energy in the kernel)(fig. 7)
    Cellulosic energy comes out looking even better – I’d even say it hits your 5:1 ratio (whats the specific justification behind this ration by the by?)

  11. Thanks Jason!
    One would think that perhaps if we could actually utilize the energy in the ethanol to do everything that needs to be done we’d be in qutie awesome shape – so long as you have net enery output (ie you ain’t in Texas or Missouri) then you have a perpetual energy machine!
    Now if we can just circumvent Haber-Bosch and start mining phosphorous from the sea.

  12. Cellulosic is most likely to be worse than starch or sugar-based conversions just because of the thermodynamics of getting at the cellulose molecule. Enzymes help, of course. Then there are the logistics of harvesting such large quantities of biomass and transporting it to processing facilities. The number of railway cars and lines can be estimated and it quickly gets absurd.
    The excitement about cellulose is related to the quantity potentially available. But if cellulose feedstock is removed from land then what is going to build soil organic matter? Each ton of dry biomass also takes with it ca. 50 lbs of potassium, as well as other minerals. How are they replaced?
    This all gets to the boundary of analysis of life cycle analysis. Where do you chose to quit adding all the inputs?
    Regarding the 5:1 comment, it is just an educated guess and is probably on the low end. Think about it this way: peasant agrarian societies without fossil fuels essentially function by human and animal labor harvesting wood and agricultural products with energy return ratios just enough above break even to support small populations of non-harvesting classes, such as merchants, soldiers, priests and administrators. For more discussion see:

  13. Given that on general the harvest index of a corn field is ~0.5 to 0.6 (ie 50-60% of dry matter in the plant (above ground component) is contained in the ear by the end of the season I’m unconvinced that the logistics of moving the stover to an ethanol plant is any worse than transporting grain to the plant – only you have the benefit of potentially utilizing both rather than losing 40-50% of your dry matter (which in a corn field is going to predominantly be carbon, and generally isn’t going back into the field anyway (at least based on the corn fields I pass every day)

  14. Maybe I’m totally completely confused on how male sterility worked, but I thought you’d use the line with the gene of interest and the male sterility trait as the female line which would then be pollinated with whatever. So every seed on the “female” plants will have amylase and every seed on the male plants will be selfs or sibs. I was under the impression that the amylase seeds would only need to be a minority of all seeds in production so then you could harvest the whole thing and use that to make ethanol. If you planted every other row then 1/2 would produce amylase. The only problem then is needing to put the traits into lines that are high yielding, and the problem of planting anything but all one type of seed.

  15. Not sure why you are that pleased with the EROI figures for certain places. Even the best is barely above break even, which when other externalities are considered hardly makes sense (there are more papers about these costs too).
    It is true that below ground biomass is significant, but for annual crops, in general, I believe more biomass is above ground. With no/minimal tillage I suspect soil organic matter can still build with above ground biomass removal. However, this doesn’t take care of the mineral issue.
    I live in wheat and grass seed country (and some hay) and when farmers let the straw go off their fields it often comes with an explicit cost of replacement of nutrients based on current prices. If the corn farmers just let the biomass leave without considering the nutrient content then they are going to rapidly deplete the soil.
    Biofuels may be workable at scale on farms. The most likely type might be straight vegetable oil, which can run in diesel type engines. (Ethanol might work if engines are redesigned to run on 95% ethanol, right now they can’t handle the water content of ethanol and going from 95-100% ethanol takes a lot of energy). The net energy at the farm gate is positive enough, you see, but the transport and refinement off farm is what drops the net energy too much.
    So, in my view the whole biofuel thing is mischaracterized. It will do practically nothing for cars and off farm vehicles. But it should be pursued vigorously for on farm applications.

  16. Mineral replacement – going to be an issue with corn anyway – 50% of the dry matter leaves with the ear, probably the bulk of the minerals too – stover is practically sucked dry of useable content – this is an issue with any form of agriculture – you can’t build the mineral content of soil and farm it at the same time (unless you work a totally closed system)
    On farm biofuel – sorry but IMO if on farm biofuel is something that should be ‘persued vigorously’ then I cannot fathom how centralizing and concentrating would be a bad thing – I have a feeling that the fuel cost of transportation is being massively overestimated here – if a field can produce more energy that it requires (when taking in to account transportation to and from the field of materials – which at least appeared to be the case in the paper I linked, although a more deep reading may show me to be utterly wrong here – risks of posting on the fly) then given time and systematic improvements (the sort of systematic improvements only possible with centralization) then it has the potential to become a self sustaining system
    On corn farmers letting residual corn leave the farm – well they clearly do, and they clearly make up for this when fertilizing for the next year, or they wouldn’t be growing much after a few years – take a look at a no-till corn field – you simply do not see the remains of 20+ thousand 15 ft tall corn plants laying about rotting – you see maybe 4-6″ of the base of the plant + roots (which frankly are a nightmare to till through anyway if they’ve got good root traits – I have a feeling that a significant amount of biomass is left underground which shall remain relatively unknown simply due to the enormous pain in the ass that it is to do anything with roots) – so arguements against removing stover from the field fall down somewhat right there.

  17. I have heard the arguments you present before, Jason, but I have some comments if that’s ok…
    Enzymes are the only way cellulose ethanol is going to work. Happily, nature has provided us with lots of cool enzymes that just need tweaking. I’d expect that within 5 years, 10 max, we’ll have the needed enzymes. Some are close to ready already.
    I went to a talk at ISU a few years back by a research leader for Archer Daniels Midland. He was talking about local biofuel production. He envisioned smaller plants dotting the landscape. The biggest drawback of this plan is loss of efficiency but it has advantages as well. For one, it’d create rural jobs which is always nice. It would allow shorter distance transportation of more fragile feedstocks, like stover and other leaves and stalks. I disagree with Ewan, it is harder to transport and store biomass if not for any other reason than it is much more bulky. It is probably more likely to rot as well. Not an impossible problem by any means, but still something to consider. With the local system, the biofuel plant could put out a call for x amount of feedstock a few weeks in advance and let the farmers store it in the fields. I like this idea because it goes back to an old solution for “storing” grain. For hundreds of years, farmers have sold their grain to local breweries. This is pretty much the same idea, only you’re making a different product. You make enough for your local area plus some to sell to places where they don’t/can’t make their own. Does this make sense? Was this ADM guy just given too long a leash?
    Ok, onto the idea of needing to leave plant material on the fields. Let’s first look at what is happening now. When I look around Iowa after harvest time, I see corn stubble everywhere. All that’s left is roots and like 6 inches of stalk. The leaves, grain, cobs, and rest of the stalk are all gone, presumably for feed. I agree that there is a need to leave more biomass on the fields but we need to be realistic and acknowledge that is not what is happening now. Saying that cellulosic ethanol would make it worse is silly, because they’re already cutting as low as they can go.
    At ISU there’s a lot of research on biofuels. They’re looking at which combinations of plants are best for biomass and that decrease inputs. Think miscanthus, switchgrass, and others in a perennial polyculture. Another piece of the puzzle is looking at what time of year the biomass can be harvested to ensure the least nutrients are removed from the field – as I’m sure you know, using perennials makes this easier since they draw a lot of nutrients back into the root in the winter. Then there’s research on how much biomass can be removed while still retaining the benefits of reduced erosion. It’s higher for steeper grades, for example, but exactly how much?
    Of course biofuels, whether ethanol, gasohol, biodiesel, or anything else, can’t be 100% of the solution. We’ve got to conserve and stop using cars so much in general and when we do use cars they need to be far more efficient. The other big problem I see is meat consumption. We simply can not meet demand for meat and biofuels at the same time due to limited amounts of available land. I’m really interested to see how all this works out as the price of grain goes up.

  18. disagree with Ewan, it is harder to transport and store biomass if not for any other reason than it is much more bulky.

    Really? The corn plant partitions ~50% of (above ground)dry matter into the ears – the whole plant dries down significantly – how is this material then more bulky? Are we assuming that you’d be shipping whole honking big stalks about or would it not be more reasonable to assume that you’d modify the harvesting equipment to spit out stover material that had gone through the equivalent of a wood chipper? If you stick it through a wood chipper it is going to be easily compacted and in terms of bulk I see no reason to think it’d be any more, or less, bulky than the grain – unlike the grain it could be compressed to remove moisture – grain which has more than a certain percentage gets to sit in a rather expensive drying oven.

  19. I am following you here. I wouldn’t say that progress can’t be made. If some low energy enzymatic reaction can be done in smallish plants close to the source of production then I can imagine doubling the EROI.
    For example, if the farm gate EROI is 4:1 then after processing it could get down to say 2:1. This would be a fantastic technological achievement. It would still do nearly nothing to increase domestic energy production at a scale that matters for the society we have.
    Your notes on perennials are spot on. They are better indeed, but the materials handling is extremely problematic, much more so than for a seed which nature creates as a storage of energy particle. One problem I continually see in the perennial biomass discussion is the notion of “using only marginal lands.” This is completely bonkers. With marginal lands you get marginal yields and then the harvest and processing costs make it senseless to plant in the first place. If we want biofuels with a positive net energy we have to use the best farmland to do so.
    Yes, the trouble is that our entire farming system (just following the nutrient loss issue, and this goes for most organic farming as well) has such a structural flaw in it that no tinkering is going to make it sustainable. It is basically a giant global mining operation with soil, sunlight, seed and water mixed in. The mine tailings are what sewage treatment plants handle.

  20. You might want to look at the some of the relevant patents: for example (all US pat #’s)
    In addition a significant amount of information is publicly available on Syngenta’s applications to USDA and FDA as well as in some publications

    Dry-Grind Processing of Corn with Endogenous Liquefaction Enzymes
    Vijay Singh, Christopher J. Batie, George W. Aux, Kent D. Rausch, Carl Miller
    Cereal Chemistry 2006 83:4, 317-320

    Wet-Milling and Dry-Milling Properties of Dent Corn with Addition of Amylase Corn
    Vijay Singh, Christopher J. Batie, Kent D. Rausch, Carl Miller
    Cereal Chemistry 2006 83:4, 321-323

    You will find that the enzyme is expressed in the endosperm with sequences targeting it to the protein bodies.

  21. Enzymer – thanks for that info – rather shoots my whole pericarp line of thinking out of the water (I may even try and edumacate myself on the trait now that I have some leads – wile waiting on Karl or Anastasia to do all my legwork)

  22. Several grain processors have weighed in – basically an adventitious presence issue:

    The groups note that the Food and Drug Administration announced in August 2007 that its review of food and feed safety data provided by Syngenta did not raise food or feed safety concerns requiring pre-market review and approval of the ethanol corn if it inadvertently was channeled to non-ethanol uses. But the organizations also say that during an April 2010 presentation, Syngenta conceded that one kernel of the alpha amylase corn in 10,000 kernels would be sufficient to cause significant negative impacts on food product quality. The alpha amylase enzyme present in the ethanol biotech corn could cause food products such as corn chips, tortilla chips and breakfast cereals to break down and crumble into fine particles. It also could have adverse impacts on the viscosity of flour used to make breads and batters. In this regard, the groups also are critical of Syngenta for not sharing adequate data or analysis of the corn trait so that marketers and users of corn could fully assess its adverse impact on food and feed manufacturing.

    The link:

  23. But the organizations also say that during an April 2010 presentation, Syngenta conceded that one kernel of the alpha amylase corn in 10,000 kernels would be sufficient to cause significant negative impacts on food product quality. The alpha amylase enzyme present in the ethanol biotech corn could cause food products such as corn chips, tortilla chips and breakfast cereals to break down and crumble into fine particles.

    Is there anything more solid on this? It seems quite an extraordinary claim to me requiring a little bit more evidence than “well Syngenta said this in a meeting” in my opinion
    From the papers linked above This ‘un has amylase activity pegged at essentially the same as the control at 0.1% levels (1 kernel in 1000) and slightly elevated at 1% levels – with the other paper showing that 1% levels are sufficient to replace amylase in the fermentation process (how well this compares to processes used in food production would be the key I guess – I think the whole foodstuffs crumbling to dust is purely invented but this could impact the production if the processes are broadly similar and if levels of contamination were closer to the 1% rather than 0.01% levels cited above) – it does kinda beg the question as to how difficult it’d be to contain the trait – if Syngenta are only testing at 0-10% presence then clearly you don’t need a lot of this corn to get the job done, so fields could quite easily be grown either utterly secluded from other farms, or as fields within fields all of which would then be processed for ethanol rather than entering the food chain – I’m highly doubtful that you’d get much gene flow out of a say 100 acre field of which a 10 acre spot in the middle was alpha-amylase producing (you’d probably get some gene flow out of your 10 acre spot… but that’s probably a good thing – if anything you could perhaps cut back on the size of field planted to alpha-amylase corn in the knowledge that your end product (self processing kernels) will be present in a tad bit of a bigger area than you planted the trait to (and that way you could make sure the rest of your field is planted to dekalb instead!)) /shameless

  24. Meh the blog is a liar… if I register it’ll be unlikely that comments get held in moderation for being link heavy (2 links…)…. I think not!

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