Thursday, August 02, 2007

Peak Oil: Meet Oil Seeds

Oil seeds are a renewable source of oils for industrial use, for chemical feedstocks, and for petroleum replacement in transportation fuels.
... an even greater potential for oilseed crops, according to John Dyer—who works at the agency's Southern Regional Research Center (SRRC) in New Orleans, La.—resides in their capacity to pump out unusual fatty acids that have valuable chemical, industrial and nutritional properties. Fish-oil-type fatty acids derived from plants, for instance, could benefit the heart, brain and eyes.

Dyer, a chemist, and Jay Shockey, a plant geneticist who also works at the SRRC, are getting inspiration from tung trees for how plants could be coaxed into churning out such impressive oils.

Tung trees, which used to be cultivated in great plantations along the U.S. Gulf Coast, produce eleostearic acid, an unusual fatty acid with applications ranging from furniture finish to computer chip production. The trees' major shortcomings? They're slow to grow and vulnerable to hurricanes.

Similar limitations apply to other currently grown oilseed crops. With traditional breeding alone, it's almost impossible to raise crops that will manufacture abundant amounts of unusual fatty acids.

That's why Dyer and Shockey are looking to engineer plants that will practically gush forth unique fatty acids, such as eleostearic acid. They recently discovered that a gene involved in the production of the important enzyme DGAT2—short for diacylglycerol acyltransferase type-2—may well be the "magic bullet" for boosting plants' oil-oozing abilities.

Genetic engineering research has focused mainly on medical applications. But modifying the genetic makeup of plants to create inexpensive substitutes for petroleum, and to create novel and unique products for human use, is inevitable.

The research described in the above article is rather tame and mundane, compared to what is possible for engineered plant life. But it's a start.

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