A Quick Take on Joule Biotechnologies

by Gypsy Achong

Joule Biotechnologiesʼ recent press release has stimulated a bit of excitement and speculation on their technology, including by our own blogger Paul O’Callaghan.

A quick look at Joule Biotechnologiesʼ patent filing suggests that they are engineering a fast growing bacterium – Escherichia coli – capable of converting light and carbon dioxide into fuel. The advantages of using E. coli over algae are clear:

  • E. coli is significantly easier to genetically engineer than algae. Thus, Jouleʼs culture will allow greater flexibility in output of fuels / chemicals as policies and product prices change
  • E. coli grows ~10x faster than algae. As long as the metabolic load of photosynthesis does not slow down growth, Jouleʼs culture has potential to capture light at a greater rate than algae
  • Also, algae grow slower if light intensity gets too high. Jouleʼs plan to use a solar concentrator suggests that their engineered organism is less susceptible to light intensity.

In addition, use of a solar concentrator presents an opportunity for increasing light capture efficiency of a reactor. The benefits of Jouleʼs approach have potential to be game-changing, and they have assembled an A-team to deliver. Resumes of the inventors, Eric Devroe, Dan Robertson, Frank Skraly and Christian Ridley, include a whoʼs who of prestigious research labs and synthetic biology companies including Diversa (now Verenium), Metabolix and Codon Devices. George Church, a Harvard professor of genetics and serial entrepreneur, is an advisor (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Church).

Still, development risks are high. Creating a photosynthetic organism from scratch is not facile – photosynthesis is one of the most complicated metabolic pathways that exist in nature, and includes membrane proteins – typically the hardest proteins to move between organisms. But perhaps Joule is a company to keep on the radar.

Gypsy Achong is a guest blogger on CleantechBlog.com. She was most recently a management consultant at the Boston Consulting Group, focusing on energy and biotechnology. She has a Ph.D. in environmental microbiology from Stanford University.

4 replies
  1. factcheck
    factcheck says:

    Last time I checked, E. coli was NOT a photosynthetic organism. If there is any truth to Joule's claims, they have not only done the impossible for biofuels, but also for life itself. Only autotrophs can convert CO2 into energy. E. coli cannot! Please check your facts next time. Ridiculous claims such as these only hurt the biofuel industry.Also, this statement is completely ridiculous: "E. coli is significantly easier to genetically engineer than algae. Thus, Jouleʼs culture will allow greater flexibility in output of fuels / chemicals as policies and product prices change"This implies that the process of genetically engineering complex traits (like photosynthesis?!?! seriously?!) into an organism is remotely easy and/or quick (it's not).

  2. ehallstein
    ehallstein says:

    The patent filing for Joule BioTechnologies says: "The present disclosure identifies pathways and mechanisms to confer photoautotrophic properties to a heterotrophic organism" (link provided in Gypsy Achong's original post). This blog has accurately characterized their technology objective.

  3. Paul O' Callagh
    Paul O' Callagh says:

    I would agree with Gypsy Achong's statement that E coli is easier to genetically engineer than algae. The genetic code is better understood and more work has been done on it. It is unusual that a bacteria could be an autotroph, but that appears to be the case. Also, from what I can recall of my biochemistry and microbiology, blue green algae are cyanobacteria, so the lines are blurred here as to whether its a plant or a bacteria.

  4. Paul O' Callaghan
    Paul O' Callaghan says:

    I would agree with Gypsy Achong's statement that E coli is easier to genetically engineer than algae. The genetic code is better understood and more work has been done on it. It is unusual that a bacteria could be an autotroph, but that appears to be the case. Also, from what I can recall of my biochemistry and microbiology, blue green algae are cyanobacteria, so the lines are blurred here as to whether its a plant or a bacteria.

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