The New Tobacco Road: a path beyond smoking for America’s traditional cash crop

Tyton Bio's tobacco project

Tyton Bio’s tobacco project

September 9, 2015 | Jim Lane

 Tobacco’s been re-thought, re-engineered and re-invented as a platform for sustainable, low-carbon fuels, and green chemicals – who’s doing what, where and how?

From time to time, it’s been said in flowery moments of commercial rapture that such-and-such technology or such-and-such company or is a “pillar of our American democracy”. In the case of the tobacco leaf, it’s meant literally.

Tobacco leaves and flowers forming the capital of the US Senate pillars

When next you take a tour of the US Capitol and visit the small rotunda of the Old Senate Chamber, look up at the pillars. They’re capped with masonry carved in the shape of tobacco leaves and flowers.

It was a tribute by Capitol Architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe to the native American plant which did so much to power the young nation’s economy as its first cash crop. It was financial source of all the leisure time that planters Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and James Madison had to devote to the development of the United States, and had a nasty intersection in its early days with the history of American slavery.

US Capitol small rotunda, with its tobacco-topped pillars

If tobacco’s reputation has fallen into disrepute on soil sustainability and smoking application grounds (and George Washington abandoned the crop in his lifetime, switching over to grain production), it’s being rehabilitated by a global resurgence of interest in the North American native. And therein lies our tale today.

Reimagining the Demon Leaf

In France and America, we reported overnight that Deinove and Tyton BioEnergy Systems have entered into a technological and commercial partnership. The main goal of the partnership is to combine Tyton’s energy tobacco feedstock, process and production infrastructure with Deinove’s Deino-based fermentation solutions in order to produce green chemical compounds of high commercial value.  Tyton’s energy tobacco technology combines advancements in plant sciences, agronomics, and processing to produce cost-competitive sugars, oils, proteins and other green chemicals at high profits.

“From a scientific perspective, Deinove’s technology platform represents a crucial step forward in industrial fermentation. The Deinococci bacteria can assimilate partially hydrolyzed sugar chains at high temperature to produce an attractive portfolio of renewable chemicals in a cost-effective way. Together with Tyton’s energy tobacco sugars, our partnership is a game changer” added Dr. Iulian Bobe, CTO of Tyton. More on that story here.

Tyton in the bigger picture

tyton-bioWe also reported in June 2015 that Smithfield Foods’ Hog Production Division (Murphy-Brown, LLC), and Tyton BioEnergy Systems put together a research partnership to establish field trials with non-smoking tobacco using hog manure as fertilizer. In addition, the companies are pursuing the development of ethanol products using tobacco as raw material rather than corn. Smithfield and Tyton said they will develop applications for Tyton’s tobacco-based biochar and activated carbon products, which can be used for a wide-range of filtration, land remediation, and soil amendment purposes.

What’s Tyton BioEnergy Systems up to, on a larger front? As we reported in January 2015, they’re manipulating the DNA of standard tobacco to boost its sugar and oil content, allowing the plant to be used as feedstock for both ethanol as well as biodiesel. The company is collaborating with local farmers on test plots to monitor the various production and harvesting methods that will lead to improved use of the crop for biofuels.

Tyton Bio: The 8-Slide Guide

You can learn a heck more about Tyton via this 8-Slide Guide, here.

The biggest tobacco project going: aviation biofuels and South Africa’s Project Solaris

The most important development in tobacco applications around the world right now is Project Solaris in South Africa, which earned the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) certification for the production of the energy rich tobacco crop “Solaris” in the Limpopo region of South Africa.


In December 2014, Boeing and SAA, along with partners SkyNRG and Sunchem officially launched Project Solaris, their collaborative effort to develop an aviation biofuel supply chain with a nicotine-free tobacco plant called Solaris. In Limpopo province, company representatives and industry stakeholders visited commercial and community farms where 123 acres (50 hectares) of Solaris have been planted. Oil from the plant’s seeds may be converted into bio-jet fuel as early as late 2015, with a test flight by SAA as soon as practicable.

Why tobacco, why now? The 3 Big Why’s

There’s nothing new about tobacco; George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were among its pioneering developers and planters — and the drive for sustainable aviation fuels has been “game on” for some time. It comes down to three factors.

1. Tobacco, the researchers’s friend. Turns out that tobacco is a relatively easily-modified plant, as genetic engineering goes; plus, it is widely grown and can be harvested several times a year.

2. A grower base eager for new apps. If ever there was an established cash crop that needed a new set of platform applications, it would have to be tobacco, which has been long associated with cigarette smoking and the resultant controversy over public health. In fact, some of the research funding that started the “new Tobacco” has come from the Virginia Tobacco Commission, which for example granted $5M for biofuels R&D back in 2011 to a new Sustainable Energy Technology Center at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research which will develop better biofuels.

The facility, funded via the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, includes 25,000 square feet of research laboratories, research support laboratories, graduate student research spaces and faculty offices.

3. It’s time to improve oilseed production. With demand rising for oilseeds from almost every demand sector (food, fuels, personal care and more), researchers are keying in on how plants use carbon., and maximizing oil storage in perennial plants and woody biomass.Oil plants are notoriously busy using (or failing to use) carbon in ways other than we would like, do not use light as efficiently as we would like, and devote energy to oil production less efficiently than we would like. The nerve.

ARPA-E gets into the act

Berkeley's Christer Jansson with tobacco leaves.

In 2011, the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), announced 10 awards for $36 million for biofuels-related projects, via the Plants Engineered to Replace Oil (PETRO) project. If successful, the project managers noted, PETRO could create biofuels from domestic sources such as tobacco and pine trees for half their current cost, making them cost-competitive with fuels from oil. ARPA-E sets moonshot goals and, in this case, had transformative yields for terrestrial plant oils in mind of up to 4,000 gallons per acre

The item that received the most attention at the time was a $4.9M project at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab entitled “Developing Tobacco as a Platform for Foliar Synthesis of High-Density Liquid Biofuels,” led by Christer Jansson. His  team aimed to develop tobacco plants with leaves that would contain hydrocarbon fuel molecules.  Their ultimate goal was a plant in which between 20 and 30 percent of its dry weight is hydrocarbon.

As we known from companies like REG Life Sciences, select microorganisms have the capability to produce alkanes, which are drop-in fuel hydrocarbons. In this project, the team developed synthetic, tobacco-friendly versions of these genes, inserted them into tobacco plants, and then refined the metabolic pathways as they spot any bottlenecks, with a goal of as much as 1,000 gallons of drop-in, hydrocarbon fuels. In this project, Jansson started with cyanobacteria genes that encode for enzymes which produce alkane, a type of hydrocarbon, making synthetic versions of these genes that are suited for expression in tobacco.

Why cyanobacteria? Ordinary tobacco “fills up” with CO2 very quickly. By contrast, cyanobacteria are very efficient at grabbing carbonate from the surrounding water and transporting it into the cell. The genes were introduced into tobacco plants grown by UC Berkeley scientist Peggy Lemaux. Nuclear magnetic resonance imaging of the leaves by UC Berkeley chemist David Wemmer enabled the scientists to spot any carbon bottlenecks in the plant and refine their metabolic engineering. In addition, Cheryl Kerfeld, a scientist at DOE’s Joint Genome Institute, searched the genomes of hundreds of cyanobacteria species for other alkane-producing genes that could also prove useful.

In a parallel project, UC Berkeley scientists Tasios Melis and Kris Niyogi worked to enhance tobacco’s use of light during photosynthesis, manipulating the plant’s light-harvesting mechanisms.

“We want to bypass downstream processes like fermentation and produce fuels directly in the crop,” said Jansson at the time. “After the biomass is crushed, we could extract the hydrocarbon molecules, and crack them into shorter molecules, creating gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel.” The team said that yields of as much as 1,000 gallons of hydrocarbon oil per acre were possible.

Spain jumps in

In the case of Deinove and Tyton, the team is looking beyond tobacco oils to the production of sugars by the plant. So it was big news along these lines when in October 2013, a researcher at the Public University of Navarra genetically modified tobacco to produce 700% as much starch and 500% as much fermentable sugars in the leaves for use in biofuel production. The project was the first to use tobacco proteins as biological tools.

And tobacco found its way into research on enzymes to break down forest materials. In April 2015, we reported that researchers from Bioforsk, the Norwegian Institute for Agricultural and Environmental Research, will genetically modify tobacco plants to produce enzymes that can break down biomass from forest raw materials. “This may lead to a more effective, economic and sustainable production of biofuels. In the first phase of the project researchers from Bioforsk, NFLI (Norwegian Forest and Landscape Institute), and NMBU (Norwegian University of Life Sciences) will search for good enzyme candidates,” we wrote at the time. Borregaard will test the enzymes when they are ready.

Australia’s CSIRO and its Tobacco oil project: The Digest’s 2015 8-Slide Guide

By summer 2015, momentum had shifted down under, where CSIRO was reporting on huge gains in tobacco oil production. If Berkeley Lab had set goals in terms of 20-30 percent oil content, CSIRO was reporting growing plants with 25% oil content. (Keep in kind, the Berkeley project was specifically aiming at hydrocarbon fuel oils, not just any-old triglyceride oil that would need further downstream processing, e.g. hydrotreatment).


Nevertheless, CSIRO are reporting that  “Leaf oil composition can be engineered for specific purposes (food, nutritional, industrial FA, fuel)” which “enables intensification of oil production for sustainability.”  Key takeaway? “Lowers plant oil feedstock cost, potentially enabling price-competitive biodiesel”  and “tobacco can greatly expand global capacity for renewable oil production.”

You can see our 8-Slide Guide to their achievements, here.

The Bottom Line

Tobacco is well on its way to becoming a significant platform crop for the advanced bioeconomy. In time, we might not even remember its role in the public health controversy surrounding the practice of smoking.

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This article was initially published online and in print (pfd) form at BioFuelsDigest and retrieved on 09/10/2015 for educational and informational purposes only.