A third wave in biotechnology is on the horizon, and microarrays are among the tools propelling it forward, said participants at a briefing organized by the Biotechnology Industry Organization in New York last week.
This wave — the application of biotechnology for industrial uses — is being heralded as a new industrial revolution by those in the sector. McKinsey & Co. principal Rolf Bachmann predicts that biotech is going to generate $280 billion, or 20 percent of the $1.4 trillion global industrial chemicals market, by 2010. Biotechnology is now “a key innovation driver in chemistry,” Bachmann said in presenting the results of a market research report.
Bachmann was joined at the briefing by enthusiastic executives from Dow Corning, DuPont, Cargill-Dow, and Novozymes; startups Codexis, Metabolix, Nexia Biotechnologies, and DSM of the Netherlands; as well as investment bankers from Burrill & Co. and JP Morgan; and a law partner from Cooley Godward.
At its core, the participants explained, industrial biotechnology involves genetically engineering organisms such as yeast or bacteria to produce chemicals. Cargill-Dow, for example, has engineered an organism that can convert corn starch into a lactic acid molecule that then is polymerized into a biodegradable plastic alternative called PLA.
While this genetic engineering aspect may seem like old biotech redux, industrial biotechnology companies are engineering their workhorse organisms using “the same genomics, proteomics, and bioinformatics tools used in medical biotech,” said Brent Erickson, a VP of BIO. Microarrays are foremost among these tools.
John Ranieri, vice president of biobased materials at DuPont, discussed a $35 million, five-year joint venture with MIT, initiated in 2000, where researchers are developing next-generation technologies including microfermenters — biochip platforms for rapid screening and analysis of biological and chemical processes — as well as liver biochips, which are based on the principle that “the best detectors in the world are cells,” Ranieri told BioArray News. This alliance cur-rently encompasses 17 funded research programs involving 46 faculty from 13 centers, departments, and divisions, including the school of management, where DuPont and MIT are working to define business models to commercialize the technology. “We are digging into new areas, high-risk areas,” said Ranieri.
DuPont’s industrial biotechnology program also includes collaborations with Genencor, Maxygen, and Nexia. Ranieri discussed the partnership with Genencor, in which the companies have engineered a microorganism with properties of bacteria and yeast that converts glucose into the chemical 1,3 propanediol, or bio-PDO. This material is used to make an alternative to polyester that DuPont sells under the brand name Serona.
For Genencor, based in Palo Alto, Calif., microarrays have been a key tool for engineering the bio-PDO producing organism. Specifically, the company has used E. coli model organisms and microarrays to look at genes for membrane proteins. ”The knowledge obtained from E. coli profiling studies using membrane arrays has helped to identify the physiological changes that occur in the production of 1,3-propanediol,” Genencor literature states, and “to improve production of this biomaterial.”
Genencor has licensed the Rosetta Resolver system to analyze the microarray data.
Novozymes, headquartered near Copenhagen, is also taking advantage of microarrays. The industrial enzyme company, spun out of Danish life sciences giant Novo Nordisk in 2000, is using self-spotted arrays to study the gene expression system of the microorganisms that produce its industrial enzymes — for example the ones that make cellulase by degrading biomass — then to tailor the microorganisms to efficiently create the enzymes, said Per Falholt, the company’s executive vice president and chief scientific officer.
“We use microarrays in a variety of different setups, and we identify the genes we think are ... responsible for side activities and then knock them out,” he said, “so we get the exact right expression system so it’s much easier to purify the products.”
If the experience of Novozymes, Genencor, and other companies is any indicator, microarrays are likely to become a standard tool in engineering microorganisms for industrial biotechnology. Perhaps they already are.