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Engineering Enzymes in Energy Crops

ARPA-E Award: 
Medford, MA
Project Term: 
01/15/2010 to 03/31/2015
Project Status: 
Technical Categories: 
Graphic of Agrivida's technology
Critical Need: 

The U.S. relies almost exclusively on petroleum-based fuels to power its cars, trucks, and planes. Fossil fuels like petroleum are subject to price instabilities that impact consumers, and they produce harmful emissions. Biofuels produced domestically from biomass are a promising alternative. However, the methods used to turn biomass into fuel are currently too costly and inefficient to make these biofuels a commercially viable alternative to fossil fuels.

Project Innovation + Advantages: 

Enzymes are required to break plant biomass down into the fermentable sugars that are used to create biofuel. Currently, costly enzymes must be added to the biofuel production process. Engineering crops to already contain these enzymes will reduce costs and produce biomass that is more easily digested. In fact, enzyme costs alone account for $0.50-$0.75/gallon of the cost of a biomass-derived biofuel like ethanol. Agrivida is genetically engineering plants to contain high concentrations of enzymes that break down cell walls. These enzymes can be "switched on" after harvest so they won't damage the plant while it's growing.

Potential Impact: 

If successful, Agrivida would decrease the production cost of domestic biofuels by up to 20%.


Increasing production of domestic biofuels could help the U.S. cut foreign oil imports by 33% in 15 years.


Widespread use of biofuels, biopower, and other bio-based products has the potential to conserve 1.26 billion barrels of oil, 58 million tons of coal, and 682 million tons of carbon dioxide from 2020-2030.


Widespread use of biofuels would help reduce and stabilize gas prices for consumers.

Innovation Update: 
(As of March 2017) 
In 2012, Agrivida established a joint development agreement with one of the world’s largest ethanol producers. However, at the time the economics of ethanol production were too challenging to deploy Agrivida’s enhanced crop feedstocks at scale in biorefineries. Agrivida then developed an alternative commercialization path—feed markets. Following the completion of its award, it performed studies indicating that its in planta enzyme technologies would provide additional value to feed. Agrivida is seeking the commercial release of its new feed products in the next two years, including those based upon the work done under its ARPA-E award. 
Agrivida engineered plants to directly produce cell wall degrading (CWD) enzymes in planta, decreasing the cost of enzyme production and improving efficiency by placing the CWD enzymes next to the plant wall. Agrivida inserted a blocker (intein) into the enzyme, so that it would remain inactive during the life of the plant, preventing the enzyme from damaging the plant while growing. Pilot scale processing in the laboratory demonstrated that with only 20% of the normal full enzyme cocktail, the two experimental lines achieved theoretical glucose yields of 68-71%, a 40% improvement in glucose yield over the control. Agrivida’s 2015 models estimate that ethanol produced from its intein CWD switchgrass could reduce total cost by 30%.   

For a detailed assessment of the Agrivida project and impact, please click here.

ARPA-E Program Director: 
Dr. Jonathan Burbaum
Project Contact: 
Dr. R. Michael Raab
Release Date: