Iceland is one of the most interesting geothermal regions in the world due to the number and diversity of geothermal biotopes, which is almost unmatched elsewhere. The biotechnological potential of thermophilic bacteria in these habitats was recognized early, and the R&D community in Iceland has focused on enzyme bioprospecting for various industrial and uses.
Matís’ biotechnology group can trace its origin to the late 80’s, to the Technological Institute of Iceland (IceTech) and University of Iceland. A spin-off bioprospecting company from IceTech, called Prokaria, was founded in June 1998. It merged with Matís in 2007. Since the merger, increased emphasis has been placed on enzymes and microbes for processing Icelandic bioresources, and direct marketing has strengthened commercialization efforts through a small daughter company, Prokazyme.
The biotechnology group’s long history in the field, has ensured important continuity, and Matís has invested major effort in the field, targeting enzymatic and microbial activities for processing and developing marine polysaccharides and derivatives as novel substrates and products for industry, developing enzymes for molecular biology and metabolic engineering of thermophilic bacteria for the production of biofuel and valuable chemicals from lignocellulose and macro algal biomass. Matís is well-known internationally. It participates in a number of Nordic and EU projects, developing robust enzymes for various uses.
Matís has large collections of proprietary microbes and enzymes, developed over more than 30 years, and Matís’ biotechnology group for molecular biology applications has developed enzymes and commercialized them for the chemical and the food industries, especially the carbohydrate industries.
Commercialization has targeted foreign markets, mostly through R&D contracts made with large industrial companies, including Roche, Epicentre, Nestlé, Roquette Frères, Wacher Chemie and SudChemie. The biotechnology group, under dr. Hreggvidsson´s leadership, has employed sequence-based approaches to bioprospecting. This approach goes back to the EU’s 5th Framework projects (FP5), but methodologies have developed enormously since then, and now Matís combines approaches of genomics, metagenomics and bioinformatics to obtain enzyme leads of interest to industry. Matís is also one of few research institutes working on the metabolic engineering of thermophiles. These have high potential as robust biorefinery organisms for consolidated biorefinery processes, utilizing a wide range of sugars; they are optimal for the harsh conditions encountered in industrial feedstock slurries.
For the past 10 years Matís’ biotechnology group has been developing a toolbox for marine biorefineries. A number of successful projects have been carried out, and enzymes have been developed for processing and modifying polysaccharides, such as alginate and laminarin from brown algae, chitin from shrimp shells and chondroitin from shark cartilage and sea cucumbers. Work on some of these enzymes started early this century when the global research effort in the field was still very limited, but leads identified a number of years ago have now been developed into highly commercial products and are being patented. There is now global interest in utilizing marine biomass resources more efficiently, and enzymes and microbes will be important parts of new industrial processes.
Matís has set its sights on providing tools for these emerging bio-industries.