March 01, 2024 2 months ago

Dr. Xiujie (Susie) Li, senior researcher for InnoTech Alberta, is searching for the perfect cocktail.

Rather than sweet and dry vermouth, her cocktail uses leftover stalks of barley, straw or canola mixed with a secret ingredient – high efficiency enzymes. They break down the stalks into glucose, a simple sugar which can be fermented into ethanol. This fuel additive, required to meet Canada’s new Clean Fuel Standard, is currently in short supply.

If not exactly mouth-watering, her cocktail would be preferable to those produced by current methods. They rely on harsh acids or bases, expensive and not friendly to the environment. As well,
they often use corn or beets, which most of us would prefer to see used as food for people.

The innovation of Dr. Li is in developing an affordable source for the enzymes in this cocktail. Drawing from a collection of 34 bacterial strains from Alberta Pacific Forest Industries, she has selected five. She will coax them into developing the enzymes that produce the most glucose.

She will use CRISPR* technology to edit the genomes of these bacteria. To turn a particular gene on or off, CRISPR adds a Cas9 protein to the bacteria cell along with a piece of guide RNA. The guide RNA finds the gene selected in the DNA, and then the Cas9 protein binds to it.

Dr. Li is performing this remarkable feat with a reactor which is about the size of a small fermenter holding test samples of several kilograms. She will select genes of interest based on literature already published on the genome. This research will take four years, followed by possible scale-up and commercialization.

The Government of Canada under the Canadian Agricultural Partnership’s Bioproducts AgSciCluster has contributed funding to this research, with a matching amount from InnoTech Alberta. Given the possible economic and environmental benefits, there is no better deal for a cocktail anywhere, and certainly worth the wait.

*CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, which are repetitive DNA sequences.