Genomatica's Jeff Lievense (left) and Christophe Shilling
Knowing the chemical process that makes balsamic salad dressing thicken after it’s shaken might seem of little consequence to our daily lives.
The same with recognizing the chemical compounds used in the making of such consumer products as running shoes, Spandex, electronics, plastics, latex gloves, refrigerators, automobile tires — even beer, wine, and yogurt.
Yet each of these products shares a distinct commonality: the scientific process of microbial fermentation.
To the fast-growing, San Diego-based biotech firm Genomatica, that unlikely mouthful represents the consumer world of the future, and it’s evolving at light speed.
“The products of microbial fermentation are all around us, in all aspects of our lives,” said Jeff Lievense, executive vice president of technology at Genomatica. “It’s all about the transformation of one chemical substance to another by microbes such as bacteria, yeast, fungi, and algae.”
An expert with more than thirty years in biochemical engineering, Lievense will address the scale-up of microbial fermentation from the laboratory to the factory to the consumer at a three-day Microbial Fermentation Workshop, July 30-August 1, 2014, at UC San Diego.
Under the direction of prominent UC San Diego bioengineering professor Bernhard Palsson and his prized graduate student turned CEO, Christophe Schilling, Genomatica has become an industry leader in developing fermentation-based process technologies to produce some of the world’s most widely used chemicals that help make a wide range of everyday products.
Last year leading industrial firms in Germany and Italy licensed Genomatica technology to commercially produce the chemical 1,4-butanediol (BDO), traditionally made from petroleum-based raw materials such as oil and coal. These bio-based approaches have the potential to reduce the environmental footprint tied to chemical production.
“We’ve developed a cleaner way to make BDO,” said Lievense. The patented process generates BDO by microbial fermentation of renewable plant sugars from crops such as corn, sugar cane, and, ultimately, non-food plants and wastes.
Genomatica’s co-founders Palsson and Schilling each have strong UC San Diego connections. Schilling, who earned a Ph.D. in bioengineering from the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering in 2000, studied under Palsson, the Galletti professor of bioengineering and adjunct professor of medicine at UC San Diego.
The story goes that Professor Palsson, who published a landmark mathematical model of bacterial metabolism in 1993, asked Schilling what he intended to do with his advanced degree. His response was to build a company based on Professor Palsson’s innovative models. And, in the process, alter the future of biotechnology.
“Technology is advancing so rapidly that we’re doing things few people could imagine even ten years ago,” said Lievense. “This is the most exciting time ever for biotechnology — that is, until the next decade, which will be even more exciting.”
—John B.B. Freeman