DuPont Does The DNA Dance

March 8, 2007
Biotechnology is reshaping the world through our medicine, food, agriculture, materials and fuel. DuPont sees biotech as the ideal tool to improve productivity, quality and sustainability.

Pork chop bearing trees and pigs capable of photosynthesis are still not possible, but no one in biotechnology is ruling anything out just yet. Consider what's already been made possible by changing the way nature works:

  • Cells modified to serve as drug factories.
  • Bio-based polymers with characteristics superior to hydrocarbon-based versions.
  • Disease prevention by selectively blocking genetic messages.
  • Commercial production of corn-based ethanol with cost-competitive cellulosic-derived ethanol being developed.
  • Plants genetically modified to naturally resist both insects and drought.
  • Plants re-engineered to produce new products such as medicines or materials.

Although referred to as an industry, in reality biotechnology is better described as a set of techniques to alter the genetic programs of living organisms. Biotechnology provides the opportunity for controlling biosystems to do things now done only by physics or chemistry or perhaps not at all. The result is technology that is encroaching on many conventional industries doing things the old ways.

Biotech's growth characteristics present opportunity at all economic levels. For example, regions like North Carolina see opportunities to support and extend biotech leadership via statewide workforce development programs. The reason: U.S. growth within biotech has exploded since 1992, with U.S. revenues increasing from $8 billion to more than $311 billion.

Between 1998 and 2008, North Carolina Central University (NCCU) anticipates a 98% increase in pharmaceutical and medical-manufacturing jobs, a 103% increase in research and development jobs in physical engineering/life sciences, and a 146% rise in medical and diagnostic laboratory jobs. Li-An Yeh, professor of biology at NCCU, says North Carolina, which ranks in the top three biotechnology regions in the U.S., is poised to lead the way in biotech education, research and employment. (About 65% of the state's biotech companies are within 20 miles of the Durham campus.) Yeh also serves as the director of the university's Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise (BRITE), a biotech workforce training initiative.

BRITE goes hand-in-hand with NCCU's selection as a lead university (along with North Carolina State University) with the Biomanufacturing and Pharmaceutical Training Consortium (BPTC). Employment goals for the consortium, which includes the state's Community College System, target 125,000 jobs by 2023, says Susan Fleetwood, director of strategic projects with the North Carolina Dept. of Business/Industry Division.

Since the human therapeutics and diagnostics have been the early focus of most biotech activity, a medical connotation is still closely associated with the word "biotechnology," but that's changing as new applications emerge. But don't expect fewer significant developments in medicine. For example, MIT recently demonstrated the biosynthesis of a Hodgkins lymphoma drug (vinblastine) via manipulating the American periwinkle plant, says Sarah O'Connor, assistant professor at MIT. In medicine, biotechnology continues to emphasize improving on Mother Nature instead of merely mimicking her.

DuPont's Vision Of A Biofuture

Biotechnology is rapidly becoming a more inclusive term, observes Walt Plosila, vice president of R&D firm Battelle's technology practice. In addition to pharmaceuticals, the bio prefix is increasingly attached to fuel, materials, food and agriculture.

En route to that future, the wide-ranging implications of biotechnology are not just as new alternatives for old procedures. Biotech has the power of remaking the basic operating presumptions of companies.

DuPont is targeting economic growth via bio-based raw materials. The company envisions a biofuture.As an example Plosila cites DuPont's innovative strategy of displacing fossil fuels as building blocks of chemicals. Instead of counting on someone drilling for hydrocarbons, DuPont's revised goal, unlike most chemical companies, is to target economic growth via bio-based raw materials. DuPont envisions a biofuture.

Charles O. Holliday, Jr., chairman and CEO, revealed the comprehensive strategy at a BioVision Conference in Lyon, France. "In the 21st century our emphasis will be on using nature's processes to build sustainable systems and create sustainable products to address global need."

Holliday emphasized the rapid growth of that need: "Demographers project 9 billion people by 2050. We now have 6.5 billion." He continues to make a similar projection for the demand for fiber, materials, energy and for human health issues. "To respond to all these needs, the technologies we adopt must address productivity, consistency, adaptability, quality and sustainability." His conclusion: "There is no more powerful tool at our disposal for addressing these global needs than biotechnology."

One demonstration of that power is in biotechnology's ability to tailor crops, such as corn, to naturally resist insects without the use of insecticides. By eliminating insecticides, both costs and side effects are controlled and minimized. Genetic modification of plants can also increase a crop's drought tolerance.

In agriculture, Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., a DuPont subsidiary, helps execute the corporation's biotech business strategy. One example is the development of new soybean varieties that will help answer the need to reduce trans fats without affecting the taste of baked goods and confectionery foods. A joint venture with Bunge Ltd., Solae Co. markets low linolenic soybean oil to food companies.

DuPont Engineering Polymers announced its commitment to biotech last year with two high performance polymers, Sorona and Hytrel, made from renewable resources. DuPont Sonora with Bio-PDO (its first corn derived polymer) will be available in mid 2007. Bio-derived Hytrel will be available in the fourth quarter.

"With these new products, we will be able to offer our customers the benefits of renewable sourced materials -- reduced dependence on petrochemical sourcing and a positive impact on the environmental life cycle of their products," says Nandan Rao, vice president, global technology for DuPont Performance Materials.

In addition to replacing petrochemicals with renewable resources, the manufacturing of Bio-PDO requires approximately 40% less energy than its petrochemical-based counterpart. Estimated savings, says DuPont, are the equivalent of about 10 million gallons of gasoline per year, based on annual production volumes of 100 million pounds of Bio-PDO (produced by a joint venture with Tate & Lyle).

"Both of these new products will contribute to our corporate goal of deriving 25% of our revenue from non-depletable resources by 2010," says Rao.

The performance and processing characteristics of both Sorona and Hytrel made with renewable resources are as good as or better than those of current products made wholly from petrochemicals, adds Rao.

Stalking The Corn Markets

Last year dupont through its formation of DuPont Biofuels started to engage its capabilities in agricultural biotechnology, metabolic engineering, chemistry and process engineering. "DuPont's sci- entific capabilities in biofuels position us well for substantial growth," says Thomas M. Connelly, senior vice president and chief science & technology officer.

Today, DuPont's annual revenues from global biofuels markets, largely from agricultural inputs to fuel ethanol, are about $300 million. Connelly says the company expects to substantially increase its activity, resources and revenues in those markets by 2010.

One part of the strategy is teaming with the U.S. Dept. of Energy to jointly fund research conversion of corn stover and other cellulosic materials into biofuel. In the first quarter of 2007 DuPont, with partner Broin Co., won one of six government grants to develop bio-refineries that can reduce the cost of producing ethanol with nonfood crops and agricultural waste -- grass, straw and wood chips.

The objective is to meet the national energy goals announced by President Bush, making the cost of cellulosic ethanol competitive with gasoline by 2012 and reducing U.S. gasoline consumption 20% in 10 years. Corn-based ethanol is constrained by the grain's significant other market -- food.

Being able to utilize both the grain and stover will greatly increase productivity per acre. The other benefit of cellulosic ethanol is its ability to sharply reduce greenhouse gases. Corn-based ethanol has only a small effect.

DuPont uses a microorganism to convert the stover. The microorganism is a native of the tropics where it normally lives in the sugar sap of the agave plant, a plant that is commonly used to make tequila.

Another example of DuPont's biofuel efforts is a biobutanol development partnership with BP. When co-blended with ethanol the benefits include enhanced stability that permits use of existing fuel supply infrastructure. DuPont also claims higher biofuel blends with gasoline plus improved mileage.

In setting forth a biofuture, DuPont has set ambitious objectives for its 2015 sustainability goals, which include:

  • Double R&D investment in environmentally smart market opportunities.
  • Grow annual revenue $2 billion or more from products that create energy efficiency and/or reduce green gas emissions.
  • Double annual revenue to $8 billion from non-depletable resources.

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