It’s either a classic case of bait-and-switch, or else the classic example of the failure of genetic engineers to make the products they promise.
Here at esnl, we’ve devoted lots of coverage to Amyris Inc., the company founded by one of UC Berkeley’s shining stars, “bioengineer” Jay Keasling, celebrated by leading publications and the darling of the liberal media, an “aw shucks’ kid from Nebraska who just happens to be a Ph.D. at a leading university and one of science’s leading openly gay celebrities.
With big bucks from Bill Gates, Amyris and his post grads founded Amyris Inc.
Keasling had hit the limelight when he and his team promised to create the basic front-line antimalarial artemisinin by genetically tweaking yeast cells to extrude precursor molecules.
But by the time they finished and ramped up to industrial-scale production, the drug sold on a non-profit basis for the same price as the conventional drug, meaning that the only economic outcome was the loss of a few thousand Third World farmers who grew the plant from which the drug was derived.
And in Third World malarial hot spots, resistance to the drug has begun to surge.
Amyris, backed by big investments from BP, the Mideast, and Singapore, then announced its plans to market those cost-competitive fuels derived from cellulose left over from sugar cane production and other plant sources, digested by those same microbes with different genetic tweaks.
The University of California held up the company as a sterling examplar of the for-profit spinoffs of Berkeley researchers. Amyris, media reports claimed, was offering the world the hope of clean-burning fuels, green replacements for the world’s dwindling reserves of fossil fuels, even though some of Keasling’s own colleagues were openly skeptical.
Well, forget that. The investments kept coming, but no cost-competitive fuels were ever produced.
Amy Harder covered the new reality for the 21 December print edition of the Wall Street Journal, which we discovered in a dentist’s office, waiting to drive a doped-up friend home after a wisdom tooth extraction.
From her report, which doesn’t appear online:
Amryris, a California-based biotech company, provides oils extracted from yeast for some 400 fragrance and cosmetics brands, including L’Occitane Provence, Elizabeth Arden Inc, and Clarins.
Amyris launched its first direct-to-consumer product earlier this year, a yeast-derived face moisturizer called Biossance. The moisturizer, which Amyris boasts is 100% plant-derived, costs $58 per 1.2-ounce bottle.
And what, you may ask, happened with the Mayris promise to create cost-competitive transportation fuels derived from cellulose digested by those same genetically modified microbes?
A federally funded demonstration project ended two years ago, and, the article reports.
Last year, about one-third of Amyris’s business was related to fuels; today it is 20%, and by next year [company president John] Melo predicts, it will be 5%.
Now he is working to convince investors the firm isn’t what it was a few years ago — an energy company tied to the oil market. “There’s a significant misperception,” he said. “People still think out economics are connected to oil prices.”
So from providing cheap, low emissions fuel for a world facing a climate disaster, Amyris has moved on.
And Keasling, the Wunderkind of UC Berkeley, pocketed millions when the company went public, leaving well before the reality set in.
To quote the Bard of Avon:
O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in’t!