BP invests in Mendel research program

By Susanne Retka Schill
Mendel Biotechnology Inc. and British Petroleum (BP) are collaborating to develop feedstocks for cellulosic biofuels. In addition to funding a five-year research program, BP will become a shareholder of Mendel.

Earlier this year, Mendel acquired the entire Miscanthus breeding program from German plant science company Tinplant Biotechnik und Pflanzenvermehrung GmbH. "The funding from BP will enable us to fully develop that resource," Mendel President and CEO Neal Gutterson said.

Prior to the acquisition, Tinplant Biotechnik spent 15 years developing Miscanthus transplants for the local and European markets. Now, Gutterson said Mendel will be using its material to develop Miscanthus for the United States market, moving away from vegetative propagation with transplants. "In the long term, we think the economics will push it toward the seed business," he explained. Gutterson said it will be the middle of the next decade before the market for cellulosic feedstocks is ready to take off, and he predicted Mendel would be ready. "We will have material that can be propagated for transplants in the short run," he added.

Mendel is also collaborating with researchers in China to gather Miscanthus germplasm from native growing areas in east Asia. "We will also be working on switchgrass, and in the long term I think there will be a place for annual crops, so we will be looking at sorghum," Gutterson said.

Mendel is developing new perennial crops for the lignocellulosic biofuels industry through conventional breeding methods and through the use of advanced technologies that overcome many of the problems associated with breeding undomesticated perennial plants such as switchgrass and Miscanthus. Its goal is to increase the yield of biomass crops without increasing input costs. Additionally, Mendel is developing varieties that are better suited to process fermentable sugars, and ones that have enhanced biotic and abiotic stress tolerance.

Monsanto Corp. is also working with Mendel Biotechnology. In the summer of 2006, Mendel extended its technology collaboration with Monsanto for an additional five-year period through the end of 2011, regarding certain large-acreage crops and vegetables. Mendel also has a number of partnerships with leading companies in crops such as ornamentals, turf and forestry.