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Enzymes threatened by biotech corn

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

by Michael McCoy
July 18, 2016 | A version of this story 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.

Credit: Shutterstock(all)
A photo of corn seeds.
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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