The plant genomics company Evogene Ltd. in Rehovot, Israel says growing trials of its engineered castor bean show it is ready for commercial development as an alternative feedstock for biodiesel fuels and other industrial products. The three-year trials were conducted in Brazil with SLC Agrícola S.A., a grower of soybeans, corn, and cotton.
Evogene’s biofuel subsidiary, Evofuel, conducted the trials in northeast Brazil to test castor as a rotation crop with soybeans, sowing the castor seeds after the soybean harvest when rainfall is not considered sufficient to cultivate other crops. As a result, under these conditions, castor does not compete with staple crop acreage and offers farmers another source of revenue.
Assaf Oron, Evofuel’s general manager, says the beans had three consecutive years of strong yields, despite having only about half the usual rainfall for the past two years. SLC Agrícola estimates Brazil has more than 5 million hectares (12.4 million acres) of potential land area where castor beans can grow.
Castor beans are a source of castor oil used as an automotive lubricant and raw material for bio-based plastics, but is also highly poisonous to animals and humans. The beans are used to make ricin poison, implicated in the ricin-laced letters sent earlier this year to addresses in Washington, D.C., including the White House.
Evogene says its engineered castor beans, developed from traits in 300 different castor lines, can provide a stable feedstock source for biofuel and other industrial applications, particularly given recent history of price and supply fluctuations for castor oil. The company expects to continue product development, and start pre-commercial trials next year, with full commercialization planned for 2016.
Evogene developed a technology based on computational biology that it says combines data mining and algorithms to match plant genes, including those designed through biotechnology, to meet desired commercial traits. The company says it used this technology, with a companion process for identifying molecular markers that enhance plant breeding, to develop these castor beans.
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