Cancer research may help biofuels

Tricking plants into extending their growth cycle may be the key to making cheaper ethanol.

Nearly a decade ago, Tom Todaro was talking to researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center about techniques the institute had devised to slow down tumor growth by slowing the rate at which tumor cells divide.

Then they had an idea. Why not exploit the reaction in reverse and get cells to grow faster?

The result was Targeted Growth, a company that has come up with techniques for increasing crop yields with canola, corn and other crops. In their natural state, these crops stop growing after a certain point in the season. Targeted Growth manipulates a plant's genetic code so the cells continue to divide past their ordinary stopping point.

In the end, the genetic manipulation leads to increased seed size and seed count. In experiments, the technique has increased overall crop yield by as much as 20 percent. It also works in a similar fashion in different plants.

"It turns out that cell cycle regulating pathways are genetically similar," he said in an interview. "Cell division is the fundamental component in life, if you think about it."

This week Capricorn Management, the investment firm of former eBay President Jeff Skoll, led a $22.3 million investment in the company. With the influx of cash, Targeted is going to test out how its technology works in a wider variety of crops in a diverse range of ecosystems.

The company, which licenses technology from the Hutchinson Center but also has devised its own technologies, does not integrate foreign genes into a plant, which creates so-called transgenic plants. Instead, it removes genes from a species, modifies them and then reinserts them.

Founded in 1999, the company has primarily worked with agribusiness concerns like Monsanto but in the past few years has begun to more closely examine using its technology for ethanol and biodiesel production. Alternative fuels have become a major focus of interest for universities, governments, the public and researchers.

There is one big problem, though: they currently cost more than gas. If oil stays below $55 a barrel, most alternative car fuel technologies stop making economic sense, according to Dan Arvizu, director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Oil has bounced between $50 and $60 a barrel recently. As a result, most biofuels are currently supported by subsidies.

Genetic modification helps ameliorate the problem by allowing farmers to generate more starch, which can be converted to ethanol or biodiesel, per acre. The company has already grown a dozen or so fields each of canola, corn, soybeans and camolina, a similar plant to canola.

"Now I want four dozen for each, and I want to do them worldwide," he said. Commercially, fuels enhanced by Targeted's technology may hit pumps in four years or so.

Genetic modification, Todaro admits, isn't popular with the public, but it enjoys strong support in many parts of the scientific community. It cuts down pesticide use, can help farmers earn more profits, and the evidence that it hurts humans is shaky at best.

"One of my favorite stats is that more people are killed by falling coke machines every year than genetically modified foods," he said. "Eighty percent of the corn and soy sold worldwide has biotech inside of it. You ate a transgene at breakfast this morning if you had cereal; I guarantee it."

Skoll's investment is also another example of eBay alumni in action. Many former executives of the company and its PayPal subsidiary have participated in each other's ventures since the go-go Internet days. Skoll, for instance, is also in an investor in Tesla Motors, partly founded by PayPal founder Elon Musk. Todaro came out of PayPal.

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