Friday, April 1, 2011

Genetically Engineered Sugar

Proterro, a company specializing in "synthetic biology", has announced their development of Protose, a "fermentation-ready sugar feedstock that will enable the economical and scalable production of biofuels and chemicals" based on genetically modified bacteria. Says Technology Review:

Today, almost all of the sugar for biofuels is made from corn or sugarcane, and several companies are developing processes for making sugar from abundant cellulosic materials such as grass and wood chips. But as a feedstock to make biofuels, "sugar is still too expensive," says Kef Kasdin, Proterro's CEO. Only sugar from sugarcane is cheap enough to make economic sense, and that can only be grown inexpensively in some locations, such as Brazil...

Proterro's microbes naturally produce sucrose when the water that they're growing in becomes too salty—it's a defense mechanism to keep water from being sucked out of them into the surrounding water via osmosis. The company has identified the genes that trigger this mechanism, and engineered the organisms to switch it on. The researchers have also engineered the organisms to secrete the sugar, which makes it easier to collect.

In theory, we're intrigued by Proterro's bold move to create a biofuel that doesn't take food from the mouths of the world's starving (as does biofuel based on corn). On the other hand, we can't get behind their claiming of a life form as their own intellectual property - which is something their website spells out in no uncertain terms.

Furthermore, we are uneasy at the idea that this sugar intended for industrial use could end up in the food chain. Given the fact that rogue countries like China will put anything - absolutely anything in the crap they export to us, it is a certainty that they will sooner or later swipe Proterro's technique, mass-produce this stuff, and put it in their food products that end up on American grocery shelves.

It's also rather unfortunate that Proterra has named their product "Protose", given that this term is already quite well known as a vegan meat substitute foodstuff developed by John Harvey Kellogg.

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