Cheseapeake Bay Bacteria is a Key to Low-Cost Ethanol

A mysterious plant-eating bacteria discovered 22 years ago in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay has been found to produce enzymes that can be used to create ethanol. University of Maryland microbiologists observed these enzymes, which were originally responsible for digesting bay grass, to also consume cellulose in other plants forms and converting them into simple sugars. As cellulosic break-down is a key component in the production of ethanol, a new, lab-based process has been born. And with it, a University-based biotechnology startup firm called Zymetis, Inc. The company’s primary directive is to commercialize the newly-developed low-cost process for larger-scale production.

“We believe we have the most economical way to make the novel, efficient enzymes needed to produce biofuels from cellulosic material,” said Steve Hutcheson, Zymetis founder and University of Maryland professor. The project has received a $50,000 state grant to help with the initial costs of production.

Though the company’s eventual goal of producing 3.5 million gallons of ethanol, annually, is hardly significant for the needs of the region, the breakthrough is, nonetheless, a positive step toward the federal energy policy’s goal to ramp up production of the biofuel, and to make it cost-competitive with gasoline by 2012.