Biofuels, food drive St. Louis dreams of a plant revolution

The Gunther Report

Biofuels, food drive St. Louis dreams of a plant revolution

St. Louis doesn’t turn up on lists of America’s most innovative cities. But when it comes to plants, the city matters, thanks in part to the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. And if you care about sustainability, you’ve got to care about plants and plant science.

How are we going to feed the hungry? How are we going to create the low-carbon, renewable fuels of the future?

Almost surely with new and improved plants.

Founded in 1998, the Danforth Center has grown to become the world’s largest independent research institute devoted to plant science. About 200 people work there, most of them scientists, without the distractions of university life. (“We don’t have to worry about 35,000 students,” an executive says.) It’s also one of the hubs of a growing bio-based economy around St. Louis. Nearby are more than 400 plant and life science companies, including Monsanto, Bunge and Solae. There's also Washington University, as well as the offices of the National Corn Growers Association and the American Soybean Association. Half of the nation’s agricultural production is grown within 500 miles.

“We think we’re addressing the most important problems on the planet,” says Jim Carrington, a leading plant scientist and the Danforth Center’s president. “Plants, in the broadest sense -- as sources of food and as growing sources of energy -- will be a big part of addressing these grand challenges that we face.”

I visited the Danforth Center yesterday to lead a dialogue about corporate sustainability with Andy Taylor, the chairman and CEO of Enterprise Holdings, the rental-car giant that owns Enterprise, National and Alamo; and Mark Reuss, the president of General Motors North America. [Disclosure: I was paid to moderate the event.]

We talked about the future of transportation fuels, and while both of them were bullish about the prospects for electric cars -- unsurprisingly, Mark raved about the Chevy Volt that his daughter drives -- they also agreed that advanced biofuels will play an important role in transportation. They also told me that they’re concerned that the U.S. is falling behind both Europe and Asia when it comes to putting the right policies in place to promote sustainable transportation. Both said that the U.S. needs to reduce its dependence on imported oil.

Before the public forum, we got a tour of the Danforth Center and a chance to speak with its top scientists, who are doing basic research into how plants work, along with research intended to optimize algae and camelina, an oilseed plant, as sustainable sources of biofuels. (The Danforth Center also researches food, with a focus on the developing world. It is, for example, developing new varieties of virus-resistant cassava for sub-Saharan Africa.) The center gets grants from the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among others.

Its biggest donors, though, are local. The center was launched with a $60 million gift from the public-spirited Danforth family through its foundation, a $50 million gift from the Monsanto Fund and 40 acres of land from Monsanto. Later the Taylor family, which owns privately-held Enterprise, gave $35 million to start the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels at the Center. Dr. William H. “Bill” Danforth, a physician and the former chancellor of Washington University, whose grandfather founded Ralston Purina, is chairman of the center. It’s no accident that the center is, in essence, financed by money made in the food and transportation industries.

The center works closely with industry. Its core scientific facilities are available for lease to plant and life science startups, some of which are located in a commercial building called BRDG Park on its campus. The building is nearly full, even though it opened during the depths of the recession, and it has attracted tenants from as far away as Israel and India.

Carrington said: “The cutting edge in sustainability is in corporate America right now. It’s not government. It’s not schools.”

While it’s hard for a nonscientist like me to judge the work being done at the center, it certainly seems promising. Jan Jaworski, a plant biochemist and the principal investigator working on camelina, told us that the oil-seed plant has great potential as a biofuel because it grows quickly, can be easily modified through genetic engineering and produces seeds that are rich in oils. Energy-dense biofuels will over time be required to run trucks and planes, he said, even if automobiles are electrified at some point in the future.  “We don’t know the future of ethanol,” Jaworski said. “But diesel’s not going away. Jet fuel is not going away.” With a $5.5 million Department of Energy grant, his team of researchers will try to enhance camelina to use light more efficiently, increase its carbon uptake and divert more energy to the production of oils. If the research pays off, the center plans to license its seed technology to a commercial company that would then try to market it to farmers.

One last thought: We’re not, as a nation, investing enough in plant research. The federal government spent about $760 million on plant science in 2010, according to this article in The Scientist co-authored by Tom Brutnell of the Danforth Center. That’s a small price to pay for potentially big gains in food security, low-carbon fuels and economic growth.

Photo of test tubes with plants by maga via Shutterstock.