Agrivida launches field trials to test modified corn stover

By Kris Bevill | June 13, 2012

Massachusetts-based Agrivida Inc. is conducting the first year of USDA-permitted field trials to grow corn that has been engineered to include enzymes in the corn stalk. The addition should lower the cost of cellulosic ethanol production, according to Agrivida. The company has been developing molecular engineering technology to add enzymes to energy crops for several years and has advanced the technology to a stage which promises to deliver feedstocks with high yields and low external input requirements, according to Jeremy Johnson, co-founder and vice president of Agrivida. Small test plots of the modified corn were planted this spring in Indiana and Iowa to further evaluate the product. The number of acres planted this year is less than 100 acres, but the company intends to increase the size of its field trials over the next few years. Johnson estimates the product could be available for commercial use in four to five years.

Agrivida’s trademarked INzyme technology, previously known as GreenGenes, allows the company to engineer corn seed that contains enzymes which will grow in the stover only. The enzymes essentially lie dormant throughout the growing cycle, leaving the corn itself unaffected, and are activated only after being subjected to heat of less than 100 degrees Celsius at the processing plant. “That is a temperature that you would not see in nature, but it’s relatively low for a chemical process, so there’s considerable cost advantages of using that low of a temperature,” Johnson said. The company has also tested its technology on switchgrass and sorghum successfully in the greenhouse, but does not yet plan to conduct field trials with those feedstocks.

Agrivida currently estimates that its INzyme technology can be used to produce sugars for about 10 cents per pound, based on lab data and cost projection models for a theoretical large-scale facility. Johnson expects that the cost-per-pound estimate will be revised as field trials progress, however. Once commercially available, it is expected that the INzyme seed will include a trait fee for growers, but the stover should also command a premium price after harvest. Johnson said Agrivida expects acreage to be planted on contract with processors who may be willing to cover the up-front expense for the seed. The grain portion of INzyme plants should be able to be used as usual, but the USDA and U.S. Food and Drug Administration will need to approve its use for animal feed. Johnson said receiving those approvals are part of Agrivida’s commercialization plan, adding that the company is excited to apply the technology to animal feed applications.

Agrivida received more than $6 million from the U.S. DOE and USDA in 2009 to advance its technology for switchgrass and sorghum, but the current corn field trials are being funded entirely by the company, Johnson said.