UI graduate works with fungus to alleviate oil dependency


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UI graduate Mark Emalfarb’s life has been anything but predictable.

A former Hawkeye wrestler and communications major, Emalfarb worked with Levi to produce the beloved ’80s acid-wash jeans, traveled to Russia in search of the perfect fungus, and is now the CEO of Dyadic International, an enzyme-production company.

After graduating in 1977, Emalfarb joined his father’s company, which sold lava rocks for landscaping. There, Emalfarb encountered the idea of using pumice to stonewash jeans and he partnered with such companies as Levi and Guess to help them develop new washes.

But technologies changed, and the companies began using enzymes — or long, twisted protein chains — instead of stones.

In 1989, Emalfarb journeyed to Russia to find and produce an enzyme of his own. This journey led to the discovery of the C-1 fungus and subsequent breeding led to a chance mutation, creating Dyadic’s patented strain.

In the Dyadic labs in Jupiter, Fla., scientists splice DNA and insert it into the fungus’ genome. The adjusted organism then reproduces, creating enzymes and proteins used for creating products ranging from paper to medicine to cellulosic ethanol. Emalfarb’s company is the only one in the world with the ability to manufacture C-1.

“Basically, I moved from jeans to genes,” Emalfarb said.

The C-1 fungus allows for quicker development of cellulosic ethanol — a process that has presented difficulties.

Currently, two major biofuel companies, Codexis International — a partner of Shell — and Abengoa Bioenergy, have licenses for the fungus, Emalfarb said.

“Our goal is to help wean the U.S. off oil,” Emalfarb said, and his company’s enzymes raise the efficiency and lowers the cost of production. Also, his company can produce the enzymes and proteins on large scales — up to 150,000 liters — something most companies or labs can’t do.

Former teammate Dan Breedlove said he is not surprised by Emalfarb’s success.

“You always knew he was going to be successful,” Breedlove said. “He is the kind of guy who wouldn’t complain when something went wrong. He’d do something to fix it.”

Emalfarb is a leader in a growing celluosic-ethanol market. By the end of 2010, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 states U.S. biorefineries should produce 100 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol. By 2022, the number should climb to 16 billion.

The U.S. does not currently produce the fuel on a commercial scale, but according to the Renewable Fuels Association, there are currently 26 cellulosic ethanol plants under development and construction, including one in Iowa.

At the UI, the Center for Biocatalysis and Bioprocessing provides a similar function.

“We help startup and small companies scale up the process,” said Sridhar Gopishetty, the project manager at the UI Center for Biocatalysis and Bioprocessing. “When companies have a low yield, we can help them find the reason and fix it.”

Gopishetty said he has seen an increasing interest in the biotechnology field over the past few years, noting one of the causes might be the money invested in the production of ethanols and other alcohols by the U.S. government.

“I came in with a degree in communications,” Emalfarb said. “Just imagine what someone with a scientific background and enthusiasm, vision, foresight, and drive could accomplish.”

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