Part Corn, Part Cow. Freaky Ethanol Process Commercialized.

It was a weird and improbable shotgun wedding of genetic material — one conducted by your drunk uncle Larry in a brothel on the outskirts of Las Vegas. One in which researchers successfully combined enzymes from a bacteria that normally resides in a cow’s gut with the genes of the leaves and stalk of a corn plant — and one in which the offspring from that marriage is a corn plant that can digest itself into the components needed to make ethanol.


Certainly, anything that can digest itself warrants a closer look — and now a company in Kansas has licensed that proprietary corn offspring, dubbed Spartan Corn III (it even sounds like a name your drunk uncle Larry would approve of), for the ultimate consummation of the marriage in a baptism of commercialization.

Edenspace Systems Corp., a Kansas biotechnology company that develops new crops for biofuels, says it wants to use the technology to create biofuel corn varieties which can be sold directly to growers. The company will also investigate using the technology in other biofuel crops such as sorghum, switchgrass and sugarcane.

I bet many of you — at this very moment — are asking yourselves, “Why on earth would we want to combine genes like this?” Don’t worry, I’ll try and explain (he says hesitantly).

You see, the oft-maligned, food-shortage-causing, fuel-price-increasing, and baby-kitten-killing (I’m sure it’s done some of that too) ubiquitous corn ethanol we hear about today is dragging the name of ethanol through the mud — along with the name of biofuels in general.

On the other hand, second generation ethanol — I like to call it celluline, but everybody else insists on calling it cellulosic ethanol — represents a future where biofuels and food can coexist in prosperity.

So it’s no wonder why scientists and industry are racing to make these types of second gen biofuels a reality before biofuels go the way that Jimmy Carter’s solar panels did back in the 70s.

And here’s where Spartan Corn III (awww, isn’t he cute?) comes in.

Breaking down the fiber that makes plant leaves and stalks rigid (cellulose) is currently an expensive and laborious process, but it is required when making celluline through fermentation. It involves the use of enzymes that convert the various fibrous components into fermentable sugars.

The current methods of producing these enzymes are still quite expensive and, therefore, drive up the cost of producing celluline. Spartan the third’s genetic manipulation means that the plant itself produces copious amounts of these enzymes, thereby eliminating the need to produce these enzymes separately. In turn, this greatly reduces the cost and energy requirements of making the ethanol.

So, I’ve got to ask, what do you think? Do the potential benefits of genetic engineering outweigh the potential risks? Can the process of creating and marketing genetically modified biofuel plants be done in a way that eliminates risk?

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Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.