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Originally published November 12, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 12, 2007 at 9:28 AM

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Ethanol clue under their feet

For years, a researcher scoured soil samples from around the world in search of the perfect microbe; turns out dirt found near the lab excels at turning plant fibers into ethanol.

The Washington Post

QUABBIN RESERVOIR, Mass. — Ten years ago, an assistant from a microbiology laboratory took a hike near the shore of the vast Quabbin Reservoir, which supplies water to Boston. At one point, he crouched alongside a brook in the shade of towering hemlock trees, dug up some moist dirt, put it in a jar and took it back to the lab.

Today, some investors are betting that the jar of dirt could help change the biofuels industry.

Inside the jar, microbiology professor Susan Leschine found curious lollipop-shaped microbes with an uncommon ability to break down leaves and plant fibers into ethanol. For 30 years, Leschine has been researching and writing about it for publications such as the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology.

Some venture capitalists in the area have convinced Leschine that her microbe could be big business. Now Leschine, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is also chief scientist at SunEthanol, a startup with about 12 employees.

The firm has attracted an equity investment from VeraSun Energy, one of the nation's biggest producers of ethanol derived from corn and used as motor fuel.

Commercial race

It is VeraSun's first investment in the next generation of ethanol, known as cellulosic ethanol, made from switch grass, wood chips and other plant fibers. Now SunEthanol is racing to gear up for commercial production of the microbe so it can move from the cloudy test tubes in Leschine's cluttered lab into the giant vats at VeraSun's refineries.

SunEthanol is just one of countless firms searching for ways to make cellulosic ethanol a commercially viable business. At the moment, they have a way to go.

Unlike ethanol made from corn, not a drop of cellulosic ethanol is being commercially produced. Half-a-dozen pilot projects are being built — with the help of $385 million in Energy Department grants — but no one has a sure thing.

"We're optimistic, but we're also realistic that this is an early-stage company and it still has many hurdles to cross," said Bill Honnef, VeraSun's vice president for strategic initiatives.

Hurdles remain

Still, many technological hurdles remain, and much of the venture capital poured into the cellulosic-ethanol industry is going into companies like SunEthanol that are searching for ways to make manufacturing more efficient and profitable.

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A key part of the challenge is figuring out how to better break down cellulosic material — such as cornstalks or wood chips — into ethanol. Many firms are trying to do that in two steps, first breaking down cellulose into sugars and then fermenting sugars to produce ethanol for use in motor fuel.

Many companies are genetically engineering enzymes to do the first task. Those enzymes tend to be expensive.

Genencor, a division of Danisco, announced earlier this year that it had developed a new product, Accellerase 1000, it said contains enzymes that reduces cellulosic biomass into fermentable sugars.

"Lots and lots and lots of groups and companies are looking for new cellulases," or enzymes that process cellulose, said J. Craig Venter, who raced the federal government in mapping the human genome.

Venter's company, Rockville, Md.-based Synthetic Genomics, is searching for naturally occurring chemicals that can turn sugar into diesel fuel. "A key part of nature is breaking down plant debris," he said. "So we find all kinds of environments with unique cellulases in them."

Leschine says her microbe has the advantage of performing both the breakdown of plant fibers and the production of ethanol. "Creating one microbe that does what enzymes and fermentation do is regarded as the Holy Grail because of the savings in costs."

For the microbe, the plant fibers are food while ethanol and carbon dioxide are waste products. "These are tiny little cells we can't even see. They don't have mouths. How do they do it?" Leschine said with a sense of wonder.

Good example

Whether SunEthanol will succeed is unclear, but it is a good example of the hopes and hurdles for companies in the cellulosic-biofuel business. Many of those firms rely on the research, and serendipity, of scientists like Leschine.

For years, Leschine scoured soil samples from around the world in search of the perfect microbe, one that would excel at breaking down what nature casts on the ground in damp places like the reservoir. When friends or colleagues traveled, she would ask them to bring back soil in jars or old plastic film canisters.

Yet the best microbe may have been here all along, lurking near some ferns and an old stone dam just 20 minutes from her university lab. She has dubbed it the Q microbe for the Quabbin Reservoir.

Apart from its lollipop appearance, it didn't stand out at first. But the more she tested it, the more unusual it seemed.

Most microbes have about 20 machinelike proteins for absorbing sugars; the Q microbe has more than 100 for various nutrients, half of them for sugars, she says. The Q microbe also works in moderate temperatures, making it useful for manufacturing.

Mass production

SunEthanol must figure out how to go from working with a liter or two of Q microbes in the lab to churning out millions of gallons of the microbe. VeraSun, for example, has fermentation vats that are more than 100,000 gallons each.

Leschine is hopeful. "What we've demonstrated is that if you go out and look in nature, you can find a microbe that does what you want to do. The advantage of working with a natural microbe is that ... you don't have to do all the complicated genetic engineering."

But she knows that she doesn't know much about engineering or big industry. She notes the dirty cornstalks in her office. They are there, she said, "to remind me that this is a daunting task."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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