GLBRC gets its first patent

The Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) is marking the arrival of summer with a milestone: the first patent issued on the center’s technology.

The patent protects a new heat-tolerant enzyme capable of breaking down the sturdy plant cell walls of cellulosic biomass into biofuel. The pioneering piece of intellectual property is based on research conducted at the GLBRC’s Middleton, Wis.-based industry partner, C5-6 Technologies.

Cellulosic biomass, the leaves, stems and other non-edible parts of plants like grasses and corn, is valued for its potential to help replace fossil fuels as a renewable energy source. The patented discovery makes it possible to transfer from laboratory to industry a technology that converts biomass to ethanol and other advanced biofuels.

“We’ve reached a milepost – this patent signifies the maturation of the GLBRC,” says David Pluymers, the center’s intellectual property manager.

Phil Brumm, C5-6’s Chief Scientific Officer, agrees that this achievement symbolizes the development of a successful collaboration between GLBRC, C5-6 and its partner company, Lucigen, since the center was established by a U.S. Department of Energy grant in 2007.

“It is a sign of how well the collaboration between the university and industry is progressing,” Brumm says.

Produced by a species of bacteria called Dictyoglomus turgidum, the newly patented enzyme is found in the hot springs of Russia’s remote Kamchatka Peninsula. Heat-tolerant enzymes are prime candidates for use in biofuel labs because researchers use scalding temperatures to help weaken the sturdy cellulose polymers that hold plant cell walls together.

Once the cellulose is broken apart by enzymes, simple sugars are available for fermentation into ethanol. Typically, these processing reactions occur between 120-130 degrees Fahrenheit, but they are limited by the use of fungal enzymes that can’t function in extreme heat. Dictyoglomus enzymes, on the other hand, can function in temperatures up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

Another advantage of these enzymes is that they can attack other sugar-rich plant materials in addition to cellulose. Biofuels researchers usually rely on cocktails of several enzyme types to break down different polymers individually, but with Dictyoglomus scientists may be able to use simpler mixtures with fewer ingredients.

In addition to isolating and purifying the enzyme itself, Brumm and his team at C5-6 Technologies have sequenced the Dictyoglomus turgidum genome and developed methods to produce the enzyme in the lab. It is hoped that in the next few years, these techniques will allow the enzyme to be generated for use in large-scale biofuels production.

While this enzyme is the first GLBRC invention to receive a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the center has submitted 55 invention disclosures that have lead to the filing of 59 patent applications.  In the past year, the center’s indicators of intellectual property activity have climbed above the national average for organizations with similar levels of funding.

Brumm sees further strides in store for the commercial applications of the GLBRC’s basic bioenergy research.

“The GLBRC is making significant progress in the field of new enzymes,” he says. “I think that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and that we’ll be seeing more patents in this area at the GLBRC in the next year or two.”

While Pluymers predicts further acceleration of intellectual property activity, he emphasizes that industry readiness is just one measure of the GLBRC’s success. Since its inception, the center’s basic research efforts have resulted in increasing numbers of journal publications, as well as productive collaborations across research areas.

“As our basic science matures, some of it results in inventions with commercial potential that must be protected to realize that potential,” Pluymers says. “We are providing the breakthroughs in fundamental research that industry needs to produce biofuel.”