Daniel I. C. Wang Lecture on the Frontiers of Biotechnology – 2011 – 2

“Development of liquid fuels from lignocellulose”


Chris Somerville
Energy Biosciences Institute
University of California -Berkeley

Friday, October 14, 2011
3:00 p.m. Room 32-123
Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Chris Somerville is a biochemist who has been recognized for his work on the biochemistry, cell biology, genomics and genetics of various aspects of plant and microbial growth and development. He was one of the early advocates for the development of Arabidopsis as a model system to dissect plant growth and development and was the first chairperson of the Arabidopsis Genome Initiative, an international collaboration that completed the sequence of the first plant genome. The majority of his research contributions have concerned the synthesis and modification of membrane and storage lipids, and the synthesis of polysaccharides.  Somerville and his collaborators characterized many of the genes and proteins involved in fatty acid desaturation and hydroxylation, and proposed the mechanism for desaturation and hydroxylation based on spectroscopy and protein engineering.  His recent work on polysaccharides has been largely focused on the use of live-cell imaging of single cellulose synthase complexes and cytoskeletal components to dissect the basic mechanisms of cellulose synthesis.

Somerville is the Director of the Energy Biosciences Institute, a research institute at UC Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign initiated with a $500M award from the energy company BP (www.energybiosciencesinstitute.org).  He is the Philomathia Professor of Alternative Energy at UC Berkeley. He was a professor at Stanford University and director of the Carnegie Institution for Science from 1994-2007 and a professor at the Michigan State University DOE Plant Research laboratory from 1982-1993.  He has published more than 200 scientific papers and patents in plant and microbial genetics, genomics, biochemistry, and biotechnology.  He is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, The Royal Society of London and the Royal Society of Canada and has received numerous scientific awards including the Gibbs and Schull awards from the American Society of Plant Biologists, the Mendel Medal from the Genetics Society, the Hopkins medal from the Biochemical Society, the Khumo Award from the Plant Molecular Biology Society and most recently the Balzan Award which he shared with Elliot Meyerowitz (Caltech).  He cofounded three companies, Mendel Biotechnology, LS9 Inc, and Poetic Genetics.


The Development of Liquid Fuels from Lignocellulose
The efficient production of cellulosic fuels by biochemical routes will require innovation in three main areas:  sustainable production of feedstocks that do not compete with food production, depolymerization of feedstocks, and conversion of feedstocks to liquid fuels.  In this respect there is renewed interest in identifying plants that have optimal biomass accumulation and understanding the production issues associated with large‐scale cultivation and sustainable harvesting of such species.  Additionally, the importance of enhancing soil carbon and nutrient retention while minimizing inputs will require an integrated approach to the development of cellulosic energy crops.

The challenges on the processing side include the development of improved chemical or biological catalysts for polysaccharide and lignin depolymerization and conversion to fuels, the development of microbial strains that can convert a wide range of sugars to next generation fuels under harsh conditions, and numerous innovations in chemical engineering.  There appear to be many different routes to improved processes for cellulosic fuels production. However, because of the interdependencies of elements of the overall path from biomass to liquid fuels, research on the design of optimized processes is at a preliminary stage of technical maturity.