Solazyme Sambas into Brazil with Engineered Algae that Crave Sweets

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Solazyme is a South San Francisco company that makes oil from microalgae. Instead of providing sunlight and carbon dioxide for direct photosynthesis, Solazyme feeds the algae sugars from various biomass feedstocks in the absence of light using fermentation tanks.

Solazyme recently signed a deal with Bunge, a large Brazilian agribusiness company, to build an algae oil plant in Brazil (see Greentech Media’s coverage of the deal).

The facility will take advantage of Brazil’s plentiful sugar cane and feed sugar cane juice to the algae to produce on the order of 100,000 metric tons of triglyceride oils a year.

Using Cleantech PatentEdge™, I found Solazyme’s U.S. Patent No. 7,935,515 (’515 Patent), which is entitled “Recombinant microalgae cells producing novel oils” and relates to making triglycerides out of sugar cane.

In particular, the ’515 Patent is directed to genetically altered microalgae cells of the genus Prototheca having exogenous genes encoding various enzymes in the biochemical pathway from sucrose to fatty acids.

One of the enzymes recited in independent claim 1 is sucrose invertase, which hydrolyzes sucrose to glucose and fructose.

Other enzymes in claim 1 include a fatty acyl-ACP thioesterase, which hydrolyzes a fatty acyl-ACP substrate, a fatty acyl-CoA aldehyde reductase, which reduces a fatty acyl-CoA molecule to a primary alcohol, a fatty acyl-CoA reductase, which reduces a fatty acyl-CoA molecule to an aldehyde, and a fatty aldehyde decarbonylase, which converts a fatty aldehyde to an alkane or alkene.

The ’515 Patent also describes and claims methods of manufacturing triglyceride oils using sugar cane or sugar beets as the feedstock in a heterotrophic (growing in the dark) fermentation.

For example, independent claim 11 is directed to a cell with a thioesterase gene encoding a fatty acyl-ACP thioesterase, with claim 18 reciting a method of cultivating the cell under heterotrophic conditions to make a triglyceride composition using sucrose as a carbon source.

Solazyme is not the first U.S. biofuels company to find Brazil’s sugar and biofuels production ability very sweet, and is also not the first to partner with Bunge. In December 2009 Fremont, California-based Amyris Biotechnologies announced that it had entered letters of intent with Brazilian sugar and ethanol producers, including Bunge, to produce renewable chemicals and fuels.

This trend is one example of tech transfer between U.S. clean tech innovators on the one hand and emerging market and developing country partners on the other hand and belies claims by Brazil, China and other developing nations that IP rights are acting as a barrier to international transfer of clean technologies (see China View article here and my previous post here).

Eric Lane is a patent attorney at Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps in San Diego and the author of Green Patent Blog. Mr. Lane can be reached at elane@luce.com.

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Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

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