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Business

Enzymes threatened by biotech corn

Alpha-amylase-containing corn is rendering addition of enzymes unnecessary in ethanol production

by Michael McCoy
July 18, 2016 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 94, ISSUE 29

Enzyme companies have thrived in recent years by replacing synthetic chemicals in applications such as laundry detergents, animal feed, and textile manufacturing.

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Credit: Shutterstock(all)
Credit: Shutterstock(all)

Now, however, makers of enzymes are getting a taste of their own medicine. Sales of α-amylase to the corn ethanol industry are threatened by a new kind of corn genetically engineered to contain the enzyme.

The corn, called Enogen, was developed by the agriculture giant Syngenta. Ethanol producers traditionally buy α-amylase to break down cornstarch into sugar, which is then fermented into ethanol. Now, instead, they can buy enzyme-containing corn from farmers by paying them a 40-cent-per-bushel premium.

Introduced in 2011, Enogen was slow to catch on. But today, Syngenta says, some 20 ethanol plants across the U.S. are running on it.

In a new report, the investment firm Jefferies estimates that more than 10% of U.S. ethanol plants have adopted Enogen and that another 15–20% of them are testing it. Green Plains, the fourth-largest U.S. ethanol maker, says half of its 14 facilities are set to use Enogen corn during the 2016-17 growing season.

Jefferies expects the rise of Enogen to affect the two major enzyme producers, Novozymes and DuPont. Novozymes says its first-quarter sales to the bioenergy sector were down 6%, despite a 4% increase in U.S. ethanol output, though the company says the new corn wasn’t a significant factor in the decline.

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