Metabolix, Archer Daniels Midland Announce Production of Mirel Natural Plastics

Includes: ADM, YTEN
by: James Fraser

In 2006, Metabolix Inc. (Nasdaq: MBLX), and Archer Daniels Midland (NYSE: ADM) formed a a 50-50 joint venture company operating under the name of Telles to commercialize Mirel Natural Plastics. The companies announced this week that they will jointly produce biobased and totally biodegradable Mirel Natural Plastics.

Telles is now building its first commercial scale plant in Clinton, Iowa. This plant is expected to start up in 2008 and will produce Mirel at an annual rate of 110 million pounds.

Metabolix's founders, Oliver Peoples and Anthony Sinskey, were the first to show that PHAs (polyhydroxyalkanoates -- the chemical term for a naturally occurring form of polyester ultimately derived from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water through the process of photosynthesis) could be produced by recombinant organisms through work they did at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the 1980s.

Made by microbial fermentation of sugars such as corn sugar or cane sugar or vegetable oils, Mirel natural plastics are biobased, sustainable and totally biodegradable alternatives to petroleum-based plastics that are used for many everyday products. Mirel is produced from renewable resources using a fully biological fermentation process, producing a versatile range of biobased natural plastics with excellent durability in use but that also biodegrade benignly in a wide range of environments.

Metabolix has improved Natural Plastics fermentations so that they accumulate over 100 g/L of Natural Plastic in 40 hours or less. At the end of the fermentation, the broth consists of water, salts, and "bio-factory" cells filled with plastic, at up to 90% of their dry weight. Subsequent isolation of Natural Plastics using aqueous or solvent processing yields the Natural Plastic product in the form of latex or resin.

The tools of modern biotechnology now make it possible to precisely incorporate nature's catalysts - enzymes - into microbial and plant bio-factories, to produce a broad, versatile family of useful polymers - PHAs (polyhydroxyalkanoates, chemically related to polyesters). PHAs are based on the use of sustainable raw materials, ultimately carbon dioxide and water, transformed by the sun's energy through the process of photosynthesis. Metabolix uses the same microbial production host (E. coli K12) as is used in the production of many pharmaceuticals.

Metabolix has developed the most advanced, high-throughput microbial biofactories in existence today for the production of PHA polymers. These microbial production systems can express pathways coded by upwards of 9 genes from a number of different species, stably integrated into the chromosome, coordinately expressed, and having specific productivities several-fold greater than wild-type systems. These integrated pathways enable the production of a range of copolymers varying widely in properties and serving diverse applications.

Working on the processes by which living cells produce molecules other than DNA, RNA, or protein, Peoples and Sinskey developed the concept of using advanced molecular biology techniques to introduce a series of genes, rather than a single gene, coding for the individual enzymes carrying out a sequence of steps in a biological pathway leading to a molecule of interest. Instead of targeting one gene to make one protein, this team provided the first example of what is now known as metabolic engineering: incorporating genes for each step in a multi-step pathway, where the final product might be a small molecule, a protein, or a biopolymer. The biopolymer PHB was the first example of the application of metabolic engineering. Metabolic engineering has been increasingly applied to improving the economics of producing small molecules such as feed ingredients (e.g., amino acid supplements) and vitamins.

Mirel can be used as an alternative to petroleum-based plastic in a wide variety of conversion processes, including injection molding, paper coating, cast film and sheet, blown film, and thermoforming. Metabolix is currently working with more than 40 prospective customers on more than 60 applications, including consumer products, packaging, single use disposables, and products used in agriculture and erosion control.

Metabolix today produces a broad family of these natural plastics through the fermentation of plant sugars and oils using microbial biofactories. These materials range in properties from stiff thermoplastics suitable for molded goods, to highly elastic grades, to grades suitable for adhesives and coatings. In some cases, Metabolix natural plastics offer combinations of properties not available in synthetic materials. For example, the combination of excellent water resistance with biodegradability allows flushable personal hygiene products and wet wipes. In the future, Metabolix natural plastics will be produced directly in plants, making them cost-competitive with even general purpose resins such as polyethylene, and environmentally friendly alternatives to over half of the plastics used today

Metabolix natural plastics are responsive to the problems created by our dependence on fossil carbon derived plastics, fuel, and energy. Their technology will reduce our reliance on fossil carbon and our emissions of greenhouse gases and, because they are biodegradable, the burdens of persistent plastics on our solid waste system and our environment. In some applications – e.g., flushable personal hygiene products and erosion control products – biodegradability can be employed to create new products that will benignly decompose after their job is done. A particularly exciting area of application for these materials is in medical implants and tissue engineering, where this same family of natural plastics are physiologically resorbed over time.

More than 350 billion pounds of plastic is produced each year, in the U.S. alone and nearly 10 percent of total U.S. oil consumption -- about two million barrels a day -- is used to make plastic each year yet virtually none of this is sustainable. Its manufacture contributes to the world's growing dependence on oil and greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, plastics significantly impact the global ecosystem since they do not biodegrade in soil, landfills, rivers or oceans.

Metabolix is developing and commercializing environmentally sustainable and totally biodegradable Natural Plastics as a clean alternative to petroleum-based plastics.