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Green Matter: Engineering the random out of bio

TAGS: Materials
You may not have heard of OPX Biotechnologies (OPXBIO), but the Dow Chemical Co. certainly has. The chemical giant has partnered with the Boulder, CO-based biotechnology startup to work toward commercialization of a biobased precursor to acrylic acid, 3HP, using a range of sugar feedstocks.

You may not have heard of OPX Biotechnologies (OPXBIO), but the Dow Chemical Co. certainly has. The chemical giant has partnered with the Boulder, CO-based biotechnology startup to work toward commercialization of a biobased precursor to acrylic acid, 3HP, using a range of sugar feedstocks.

Founded in 2007, OPXBIO's competitive advantage is centered on its Efficiency Directed Genome Engineering (EDGE) technology, which allows the company to engineer microbes with the most effective genome for producing a desired intermediate, rather than relying on the random aggregation of desired genetic mutations in the traditional approach. EDGE essentially enables OPXBIO to identify, tag, and track the specific genes responsible for performance changes in different bacteria strains to more quickly arrive at the optimal set of genes comprising the most effective microbial "factory."

This can speed the creation of suitable microbes to a period of months instead of years.

"We create variations, understand what has been changed, and what changes are affecting performance," OPXBIO CEO Charles Eggert told PlasticsToday. "The real challenge is rapidity and efficiency. EDGE is a set of tools and abilities that exceeds the conventional. Our goal is a strategy for constructing the optimal microbe. It's all about the rate and yield to achieve target economics."

This approach to optimizing microbial output would obviously apply, in theory, to any chemical intermediates that could be produced by bacteria.

In March of this year, OPXBIO announced that it had successfully scaled up the fermentation process for its BioAcrylic to 3000 liters. Independent analysis confirmed the process reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 70% compared to the traditional petroleum-based process. Acrylic acid can be used in paints, adhesives, detergents, and personal care products. It's a $10 billion market, and Dow is the largest producer in the U.S.

"It's rare where partnerships are as significant as this one, especially where they [Dow] participate in the existing market with a petroleum-based version" says Eggert of Dow's involvement. For its part, Dow will have exclusive rights to use OPXBIO's BioAcrylic, and is collaborating to convert 3HP into acrylic acid.

Of perhaps more broad-based interest than a biobased acrylic, though, is that OPXBIO can leverage the knowledge from engineering the bioacrylic microbe to more rapidly engineer the strain and bioprocess for fatty acid because fatty acid can be chemically converted to diesel and jet fuel, replacing petroleum. The distinction here, according to Eggert, is that it is not about producing "bio-diesel" in the traditional sense, which uses either waste oil or plant and vegetable oils and is then blended into conventional petroleum-based diesel, but a direct replacement fuel that doesn't use petroleum. Currently this project is at lab scale.



OPXBIO's process flow for EDGE and production of BioAcrylic.

OPXBIO received a $6 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy for this initiative, which uses carbon dioxide and hydrogen. The company is partnering in this research with the Golden, CO-based National Renewable Energy Lab and Johnson Matthey.

As we know, scaling-up new processes to commercialization can be problematic. But so far, OPXBIO has attracted an estimable amount of funding and interest, and is looking at the 20,000-50,000-liter threshold in the next 12 months. Each step up so far has born out the promise of the underlying platform. Samples should start being available to customers in the fourth quarter of this year.

The takeaway here is that the tools developed by Michael Lynch, OPXBIO chief scientific officer, and co-founder of the company along with Ryan Gill, a professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, indicate that purity, cost-effectiveness and commercial scale-up, the biggest obstacles in turning a new pathway into a viable replacement for petroleum-derived feedstocks, are seemingly not beyond reach.

Which is why we hope we'll be hearing more good news from OPXBIO in the months to come.

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