Sea Change Corn

August 26, 2011 08:31 PM
Sea Change Corn

Redesigned corn improves ethanol efficiency

Every summer, Stuart Beckman’s farm is surrounded by a sea of corn. He never imagined growing a hybrid that contains a gene derived from marine depths.

The Menlo, Kan., grower is one of the farmers trialing Syngenta’s new Event 3272 corn trait this year. Marketed under the seed brand "Enogen," the corn contains amalyse, a powerful enzyme that rapidly breaks down starch and benefits the dry-grind ethanol manufacturing process.

Jack Bernens, Syngenta’s head of technology acceptance, says that to get corn to produce its own amylase, scientists inserted a gene isolated from a heat-loving microbe that lives near thermal vents on the ocean floor.

"The idea is not as far-fetched as it might sound," Bernens says. "It’s common in science to sample all kinds of environments to find solutions. Alpha amylase is ubiquitous in nature—it is even found in human saliva."

To develop Enogen, the company isolated several amylase strains with the help of Diversa, a San Diego–based company that specializes in finding scientific breakthroughs in extreme environments. The heat-loving microbe chosen allows ethanol plants to operate at broader temperature and pH ranges.

Prior to this advancement, ethanol manufacturers added liquid amylase to corn to break down starch into sugar, which was then fermented into ethanol. Integrating amylase into the corn increases ethanol plant efficiencies.

The grain has been extensively tested at Western Plains Energy LLC in Oakley, Kan. CEO Steve McNinch says the most visible result has been an 8% to 10% increase in ethanol production combined with an 8% reduction in natural gas consumption.

Separate channels. Beckman’s fields are one to 15 miles away from Western Plains Energy. As the first biotech corn trait designed for the ethanol industry, only 5,000 acres of Enogen grain is
being grown in 2011. It will only be grown under contract with ethanol plants in a highly controlled, closed production system, Bernens says.

"Ramp-up of Enogen acreage will be much slower than other input traits," he adds. "Additional acreage will be tied to ethanol plants coming on board, and they, in turn, will reach out to growers to contract acreage."

Although Enogen has received full deregulation from USDA, there have been concerns about the possibility of inadvertent commingling of the new corn with commodity corn. If Enogen corn should enter the food processing stream, the same function that benefits ethanol production will damage the quality of food products, such as breakfast cereals.

"It’s not a food safety issue. It’s an economic and quality issue for food manufacturers," Bernens explains. "That’s why there will be no contracting of this corn in an area where there’s a food facility."

An advisory council representing all sectors of the corn industry will provide feedback and monitor Enogen identity preservation and stewardship practices, Bernens notes.

Border rows, cleaning out planters and combines, and separate on-farm storage for the special corn are all part of the equation, Beckman says.

"Premiums are about 30¢ per bushel, and there’s a big basis advantage compared to commodity corn. However, I can’t deliver that corn anywhere else. It has to go to an ethanol plant."

Beckman experienced first-generation Enogen varieties without the benefit of herbicide-tolerant traits and welcomes more trait integration. "I was familiar with the base genetics and have seen no evidence the amylase trait adversely influences hybrid performance," he notes.

Bernens says Enogen will come fully traited in the most elite germplasm Syngenta has to offer for 2012 planting. "Our breeders have done a really good job of putting the trait into germplasm, backcrossing it against the elite line and then comparing it to the isoline to make sure there are no yield sacrifices," he says.

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