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Genomatica brews sugar into industrial chemicals

A start-up that's part of a green chemistry wave has a micro-organism specially designed to make chemicals from sugar, rather than petroleum.

"Green chemistry" start-up Genomatica on Tuesday said that it has developed a process to use sugar, rather than petroleum, to produce a common industrial chemical.

The announcement, timed to coincide with the GoingGreen conference in San Francisco this week, is a milestone for the company which made a business strategy shift last year from developing software for genetic engineering to licensing specially designed micro-organisms.

Its first product is a bacteria tuned to turn sugar during fermentation into 1,4 Butanediol (BDO), a chemical used as an additive to textiles and car bumpers. The company expects to have its first customer next year.

By using sugar from sugar cane as a feedstock, industrial chemical companies can get a cheaper alternative to petroleum-derived chemicals, while investing in processes that are less polluting and nontoxic, said Genomatica CEO Chris Gann.

Gann said that the Genomatica uses simulation software to determine the most expedient way to customize E coli bacteria. Then genetic engineers manipulate genes so that the organisms grow while producing the desired characteristics.

Using environmentally benign or renewable feedstocks is part of a broader industry push toward green chemistry which advocates cleaner chemical processes and end products.

"I've spent almost 27 years in the chemicals industry and the amount of interest on the subject of (green chemistry) is increasing significantly," Gann said.

He said that its process will be cost-competitive with petroleum-based products even if the price of crude oil goes down to $50.