Comparing planta accumulation with microbial routes to set targets for a cost-competitive bioeconomy
Plants and microbes share common metabolic pathways for producing a range of bioproducts that are potentially foundational to the future bioeconomy. However, in planta accumulation and microbial production of bioproducts have never been systematically compared on an economic basis to identify optimal routes of production. A detailed technoeconomic analysis of four exemplar compounds (4-hydroxybenzoic acid [4-HBA], catechol, muconic acid, and 2-pyrone-4,6-dicarboxylic acid [PDC]) is conducted with the highest reported yields and accumulation rates to identify economically advantaged platforms and breakeven targets for plants and microbes. The results indicate that in planta mass accumulation ranging from 0.1 to 0.3 dry weight % (dwt%) can achieve costs comparable to microbial routes operating at 40 to 55% of maximum theoretical yields. These yields and accumulation rates are sufficient to be cost competitive if the products are sold at market prices consistent with specialty chemicals ($20 to $50/kg). Prices consistent with commodity chemicals will require an order-of-magnitude-greater accumulation rate for plants and/or yields nearing theoretical maxima for microbial production platforms. This comparative analysis revealed that the demonstrated accumulation rates of 4-HBA (3.2 dwt%) and PDC (3.0 dwt%) in engineered plants vastly outperform microbial routes, even if microbial platforms were to reach theoretical maximum yields. Their recovery and sale as part of a lignocellulosic biorefinery could enable biofuel prices to be competitive with petroleum. Muconic acid and catechol, in contrast, are currently more attractive when produced microbially using a sugar feedstock. Ultimately, both platforms can play an important role in replacing fossil-derived products.