|Big harvest for Ceres: Deal makes area company a biofuels leader (24/6/2006)|
excerpt: "you are following the model of our deadly fossil-fuel intensive and poison-rich agriculture, which is wreaking havoc with half of the U.S. area and its waters and is costing thousands of people their lives. No amount of gene splicing will do the job, because you work against nature, not with it."
Biotechnology - Big harvest for Ceres: Deal makes area company a biofuels leader
Like a double helix, Rancho Conejo Boulevard winds along the western edge of Thousand Oaks and through the nucleus of the city's growing biotechnology industry.
Time and time again, Ventura County's largest private workforce splices genes and re-arranges human DNA to produce well known bio-pharmaceutical products for Amgen, the big name along this boulevard.
But tucked in an industrial park a few miles from Highway 101, researchers at Ceres Inc. are poised to burst into the forefront of bioengineering fueled quite literally by their work with plant genomics and not the inner-workings of human cells.
"What we do is discover plant genes and their functions," Ceres President and Chief Executive Officer Richard Hamilton said.
Identifying those functions may help the company squeeze its way into the emerging crop-based energy market.
A June 7 announcement from the privately held company revealed that it had signed an agreement with the Ardmore, Okla.-based Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation to develop and commercialize bio-engineered crops that can be used for ethanol production.
Answering a call for renewable, crop-based transportation fuels made by President George W. Bush in his Jan. 28 State of the Union address, the new partners will begin their agreement by developing high-yield switchgrass that can be used to produce what is known as cellulosic ethanol.
Not to be confused with starch ethanol - which usually comes from corn, sugar cane or soybeans -cellulosic energy involves tapping into the chemicals that fuel plant growth and is said by some researchers to be three times as efficient as the former.
At the heart of the work of Ceres' approximately 160 employees is precision breeding that emphasizes DNA markers. Each plant cell - and each animal cell as well - has the same DNA as every other cell in the plant. But the specific function of a given cell is determined by the specific genes that are expressed in the cell. If the genes that are expressed are altered, the cells traits will be altered.
Under the new agreement, Ceres will take research it has conducted into these genetic markers to create switchgrass crops that could help farmers grow the perennial prairie crop in new locations and under harsh conditions.
The company has developed genetic technology that can promote the expression of specific characteristics, such as drought resistance, tolerance of temperature extremes, or the ability to survive in environments with varying chemical compositions.
"The idea is to put less in to get more out," Hamilton said.
But not all are convinced of the potential of genetically engineered switchgrass as a crop for biofuels.
Tadeusz W. Patzek, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, has studied bio-ethanol and other biofuels and said that monoculture plantations of switchgrass require large amounts of chemical fertilization and are likely to decline in yield and wither after four to five years.
"The reason is that you are following the model of our deadly fossil-fuel intensive and poison-rich agriculture, which is wreaking havoc with half of the U.S. area and its waters and is costing thousands of people their lives," Patzek said in an e-mail. "No amount of gene splicing will do the job, because you work against nature, not with it. Instead, you need to look at the prairie and mimic its rich diverse ecosystems full of perennial grasses and legumes."
Along with David Pimentel, a professor of entomology, systematics and ecology at Cornell University, Patzek has done research that concludes that too many fossil fuels are required to create ethanol from switchgrass and other crops.
But Hamilton said that the experiments conducted by Patzek and Pimentel only apply to switchgrass crops in the wild that may not have stable yields.
"There's a huge stability inducing factor that we have. It's called a farmer," Hamilton said. "Davids been refuted by just about everybody."
Hamilton said that Ceres' research isn't only applicable to energy crops. The company has a $136 million contract with Missouri-based agribusiness giant Monsanto to use its research with major row crops in the United States such as corn and cotton.
One of the advantages that the company has, Hamilton and Chief Financial Officer Patrick McCroskey said, is that plant genetics are very similar from species to species.
"If we find a gene that works well with rice, it's very likely to work with corn or switchgrass," McCroskey said. "Nothing's 100 percent, but our chances of applying it are good."
Ceres went into business in 1997. The company is currently funded by private equity investors. Hamilton would not disclose any figures relating to the companys revenue. However, he did not rule out a future public offering and said that the companys options remain open is its business grows.
With Amgens campus nearly surrounding Ceres' labs, the two companies have developed an inadvertently complementary relationship. For example, Hamilton said, their human resources are in contact. That way, if someone is hired to work at Amgen, there may be work available for his or her spouse at Ceres.
"Scientists, for some reason, marry other scientists," he said.
Moreover, the larger company has helped increase Thousand Oak's profile in the biotechnology industry.
"Amgen's success gives this area legitimacy as a center for biotechnology," Hamilton said.