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Sugar in the gas tank? It might run your car someday

Thursday, February 01, 2007

What if gasoline, diesel and jet fuel could be made without oil and made instead with sugar? An Emeryville-based company founded by U.C. Berkeley scientists is on its way to doing just that, with staggering environmental and economic implications.

This sugary solution could be what breaks America's addiction to oil.

Science has long understood how ethanol is made by adding sugar to yeast. But now using the same basic biological processes, scientists can re-program the microbes to make something closer to gasoline. It's cutting-edge technology commonly known as "synthetic biology" and it will change the way we fuel any vehicle that now relies on oil -- at least that's the hope at Emeryville-based Amyris Biotechnologies.

Jack Newman, PhD, Amyris Biotechnologies VP: "Why are we making ethanol if we're trying to make a fuel? We should be making something that looks a lot more like gasoline. We should be making something that looks a lot more like diesel. And if you wanted to design, you name it, a jet fuel? We can make that too."

Microbial physiologist Jack Newman was a post-doctoral student in a U.C. Berkeley lab when he met biologist Kinkead Reiling and chemical engineer Neil Renninger, also doing their post-doc work in the same lab.

They soon recognized in each other the perfect combination and common vision for launching a company like the one they now have, taking out-of-this-world science and bringing it to the real-world.

Amyris Biotechnologies was born with a $43 million dollar grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to make a more affordable anti-malaria drug through synthetic biology.

Jack Newman, PhD, Amyris Biotechnologies VP: "This was technology that was really great for the current application of making an anti-malarial drug and we said, great, pharmaceuticals, that's a wonderful model and then we realized, our market is in Africa and they make less than a dollar a day."

So they decided to aim for a more lucrative market as well -- bio-fuels -- a clean alternative to petroleum products.

Within months they had $20 million dollars in venture capital funding and a new CEO.

John Melo, Amyris Biotechnologies CEO: "In a way we're creating the next oil."

John Melo was hired away from his job as president of oil giant BP's U.S. fuels operations. He started at Amyris in early January.

John Melo, Amyris Biotechnologies CEO: "I'm not a believer in, 'we will put big oil out of business' at all. I think the world needs big oil and the world needs companies like us."

And how does he see the company's potential?

John Melo, Amyris Biotechnologies CEO: "I believe by 2011, 2012 we'll be a $10 billion dollar company."

In company president Kinkead Reiling's office, a painted rock reads, "If you want to predict the future, invent it."

He thinks Amyris fuels will be available at the pump in 5 to 10 years.

ABC7's Heather Ishimaru: "You think 5 to 10 years is a realistic timeline?"

Kinkead Reiling: "Yes, definitely."

Synthetic biology and Amyris could be compared to the computer industry 30 years ago.

Neil Renninger, PhD, Amyris Biotechnologies VP: "There's a little bit of wild west about it. There's a lot of energy, a lot of new ideas, and because of that there's a lot of progress that happens very quickly, and not necessarily by increments but by leaps and bounds."

Watch for that next leap to be an initial public offering.

To learn more about how Amyris was formed, how it got its name and its founders, read The Back Story.

There's more where that came from

- New tech lets you hang up on bad customer service

Copyright 2007, ABC7/KGO-TV/DT.

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