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Deinove Strives To Develop Cellulosic Ethanol Process Using Hard-To-Handle Bacteria

French start-up Deinove must make biobased chemicals from hard-to-handle bacteria before it runs out of funding

by Alex Scott
November 19, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 47

Credit: Courtesy of Michael Daly
Deinococcus can convert pretreated cellulosic biomass directly to target compounds. The bacterium’s diameter is 1.5 to 3.5 µm.
This is an image of bacteria under an electron microscope. Diameter is 1.5 to 3.5 microns.
Credit: Courtesy of Michael Daly
Deinococcus can convert pretreated cellulosic biomass directly to target compounds. The bacterium’s diameter is 1.5 to 3.5 µm.

The challenge for Deinove, a Parisian biotech firm, is that the Deinococcus bacterium, with which it is developing biobased chemicals, is extraordinarily difficult to work with. And time is not on the firm’s side. If it doesn’t introduce a cellulosic ethanol process in two years, it could run out of money.

Deinococcus is no E. coli, says Jacques Biton, Deinove’s chief executive officer. Not only is Deinococcus hard to manipulate compared with Escherichia coli bacteria, but because Deinove is one of a small number of organizations working with Deinococcus, it has had to create its own suite of tools for collecting and manipulating the organism. The tools have taken a lot of time and effort to develop, Biton says. Meanwhile, “there must be 6,000 tools” for handling E. coli, he says with only slight exaggeration.

But Deinove has its reasons for working with Deinococcus. One of the most telling facts about the bacterium is that it is able to fully repair itself within four hours of being exposed to a level of radiation that would kill a human. Deinococcus survives because it has five chromosomes, four more than most other bacteria.

“The five chromosomes make Deinococcus very stable,” Biton says as he thumbs his way through the firm’s brochure to show off the bug. To manipulate the bacterium so that it generates a target chemical, all five of the chromosomes have to be modified. But once the company has successfully modified the bug, maintaining it in an industrial process is relatively easy because its stability then becomes an advantage, Biton says.

This stability is what led Philippe Pouletty, Deinove’s managing director and chairman, and Miroslav Radman, a professor of cell biology at the medical school of René Descartes University, in Paris, to found Deinove in 2006. Another extraordinary characteristic of Deinococcus is that it can convert cellulosic biomass directly into a target molecule with only a limited pretreatment step. This is in contrast to other emerging bioprocesses such as Beta Renewables’ Proesa technology, which relies on distinct steps involving enzyme treatment and then yeast conversion.

“No enzymes, no yeasts, no antibiotics, no preservatives,” Biton says. With input limited to pretreated biomass, a process based on Deinococcus has the potential to be cheaper.

Deinove’s ethanol technology is at a relatively early phase. The firm is initially developing a process, based on the use of wheat starch and wheat bran, which it describes as being halfway between a starch-based ethanol process and a cellulosic one. In the past two years, its wheat-based process has gone from delivering a titer of 0.001% of ethanol prior to distillation to a titer of 4%. The commercial target is 8 to 10%.

The firm aims to complete 300-L-scale tests of its ethanol process in its labs in mid-2013. If successful, the company plans to transfer the process directly to a bioethanol factory operated by BENP Lillebonne, in France’s Normandy region, by mid-2014. BENP Lillebonne is a subsidiary of Tereos, a sugar and starch producer with annual sales of more than $5 billion. If the scale-up works, Deinove will license its technology to BENP Lillebonne. Deinove is testing its process with feedstocks including beet pulp, corn, straw, and wood residues.

Remaining financially solvent, however, will be a challenge, Biton acknowledges. Deinove has $7 million in the bank and a cash burn of between $2 million and $3 million per year. This is sufficient to last the firm until the end of 2014, a few months after its ethanol process is due to be launched. Deinove has already spent about $13 million raised from investors since it started up in 2006.

“If we succeed with one commercial project, then we will be profitable,” Biton says. The path to commercialization is not always smooth, as Metabolic Explorer, another French biobased chemical start-up, has learned. Last month, the firm announced that it is laying off about one-third of its staff.

According to a note published by Edison Investment Research, the stock market considers that Deinove’s cellulosic ethanol project has a 55 to 60% chance of success.

About 90% of Deinove’s scientific effort is on biofuel. But licensing out cellulosic ethanol technology, Biton says, is just the first step in his strategy. He also wants to develop processes for biobased chemicals including antifungal compounds, carotenoids, enzymes, isoprene, proteins, and terpenoids. The firm recently signed a deal to participate in a European Union-funded project to develop biodegradable plastics.

In another twist, Deinove is seeking to develop antibiotics. “The goal is to develop antibiotic candidates and sell them as quickly as possible to big pharma,” Biton says. A gamut of opportunity awaits Deinove’s attention once it has rolled out a cellulosic ethanol process, but its first challenge is simply to survive.



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