CinderBio, a Berkeley-based startup, has achieved a breakthrough in heat and acid resistant enzymes, thanks to Yellowstone National Park extremophiles.
In fact, CinderBio’s achievement is all the more remarkable, since heat and acid resistant enzymes have hitherto been difficult to isolate and produce.
Short for Cinder Biological, this startup is associated with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (or Berkley Lab) in the University of California system, and was founded by Berkeley Lab scientists Steve Yannone and Jill Fuss.
“Our enzymes are unique—they can operate in conditions that nobody else’s can, so this opens up a lot of previously unexplored applications,” said Fuss, a molecular biologist and the company’s chief technology officer, in a press release through the Berkeley Lab News Center. “They’re made from microbes that come from Yellowstone and live in hot acidic pools, so they thrive in nearly boiling acid. We’ve been able to take gene sequences and make them into enzymes that are extraordinarily stable.”
Extremophiles, or heat loving bacteria, thrive throughout Yellowstone National Park, as the hot springs offer them a unique habitat. They’re the reason for much of Yellowstone’s thermal colors, from the top of Mammoth Terraces to the depths of pools like Abyss and Morning Glory. The heat and acid resistant enzymes derived from these bacteria are just components of their molecular structure, catalyzing biochemical reactions.
Enzymes derived from Yellowstone extremophiles are a hot commodity in the biotechnology industry. Other enzymes derived from Yellowstone bacteria have been put to use in everything from laundry detergent to renewable biofuels. But those enzymes can’t do what CinderBio’s purport to do.
Indeed, the company has big plans for their Yellowstone enzymes: for use in the food processing industry—reducing the amount of water and chemicals needed to clean equipment—and then onto everything from biofuels, paper, textile industries: wherever they can be put to use.
The discovery is a coup for CinderBio, which received $20,000 through the 2014 FLoW DOE National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition, and was selected to participate in the Fall 2013 UC–Berkeley Haas School of Business Cleantech to Market program. Throughout this year, CinderBio has been testing their enzymes with a local creamery to chart potential application in the broader food processing industry. From the Berkeley Lab News Center:
This year, with a SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) Phase 1 grant from the National Science Foundation, CinderBio tested its technology at a local creamery. The cleaning of dairy and other food processing equipment is normally a multi-step process. “They use a lot of base, then they wash, then acid, then wash, then sanitizer,” said Fuss. “It takes a lot of time and uses a lot of chemicals and water. The microbes in the equipment can be hard to get rid of, so in some areas they’ve started to use harsher chemicals to combat those biofilms.”
In the field trials, using CinderBio’s enzymes to do the cleaning in place of chemicals, Yannone, a named inventor and the company’s CEO, said he was amazed at how successful they were. “I came back after our first trials and recalculated everything because I thought we had moved a decimal point,” he said. “We reduced water usage by almost 30 percent and our enzymes removed contaminants much faster and much more effectively than we had expected. The managers and owner at the creamery were all very excited by our results.”
The process Yannone and Fuss employed to get these enzymes is quite simple. By changing aspects of their biology, CinderBio was able to turn the bacteria into enzyme factories. Further, through this process, said enzymes are strengthened and made more heat and acid resistant than those made naturally in extremophiles. For Yannone, CinderBio’s process was a departure from conventional thinking:
“Historically scientists have thought that all the information needed to make an active enzyme is entirely encoded in the DNA sequence,” said Yannone. “Some of our revelations center on the idea that that’s not true, that there are other components in a microbe making an enzyme that’s stable and works in hot acid other than just the DNA sequence.”
Yannone and Fuss first started studying the microbe about 10 years ago, looking for the fundamental biological processes that allowed it to thrive in such extreme conditions. Although scientists are still investigating what exactly confers such extreme stability on the microbe, Fuss was able to characterize the structural biochemistry of one of the enzymes. And Yannone, working with his undergraduate student then technician, Adam Barnebey, developed the molecular biology system that led to the formation of CinderBio.
CinderBio’s invention has been patented by Berkeley Lab and Barnebey was later hired as an employee. They are currently seeking a Phase 2 SBIR grant as well as other outside funding. CinderBio will put the money toward ramping up production and refining the process; they will also solicit feedback regarding the applicability and interest in their enzyme.