Saturday, January 01, 2011

Change the Genes, Change the Rules

Biofuel derived from crops such as switchgrass certainly holds promise, although some critics maintain that such crops use up too much agricultural land – land that could otherwise be used for growing food crops. A genetic discovery announced this Tuesday, however, reportedly allows individual plants to produce more biomass. This means that biofuel crops could have higher yields, without increasing their agricultural footprint. _Gizmag
A simple gene deletion in the plant arabidopsis results in stems with denser biomass -- more lignin, more cellulose/hemicellulose. More biomass density means more energy density -- which for biomass energy is a very big deal.
"This is a significant breakthrough for those developing improved plants to address pressing societal needs," said Richard Dixon, D. Phil., director of the Noble Foundation's Plant Biology Division. "This discovery opens up new possibilities for harnessing and increasing the potential of crops by expanding their ranges of use. These plants will be part of the next generation of agriculture which not only impacts food, but many other vital industries as well."

Huanzhong Wang, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in Dixon's lab, found a gene that controls the production of lignin in the central portions of the stems of Arabidopsis and Medicago truncatula, species commonly used as models for the study of plant genetic processes. Lignin is a compound that helps provide strength to plant cell walls, basically giving the plant the ability to stand upright. When the newly discovered gene is removed, there is a dramatic increase in the production of biomass, including lignin, throughout the stem.

Research targeting plants that are grazed by animals has historically focused on reducing lignin production within the plant. However, increasing lignin in non-food crops, such as switchgrass, may be desirable for increasing the density of the biomass and producing more feedstock per plant and, therefore, more per acre.

"In switchgrass, as the plant matures, the stem becomes hollow like bamboo," Dixon said. "Imagine if you use this discovery to fill that hollow portion with lignin. The potential increase in biomass in these new plants could be dramatic. This technology could make plants better suited to serve as renewable energy sources or as renewable feedstocks to produce advanced composite materials that consumers depend on every day."

Additionally, further research with collaborators at the University of Georgia revealed that removal of the gene also can increase the production of carbohydrate-rich cellulose and hemicellulose material in portions of the plant stem. These are the components of a plant that are converted to sugars to create advanced biofuels, such as cellulosic-derived ethanol or butanol. More celluloses and hemicelluloses mean more sugars to use for carbohydrate-based energy production.

"Science often progresses in increments," Dixon said. "Every once in a while, though, you have a significant breakthrough that helps redefine the research. This is certainly one of those moments for our advanced feedstock program." _PRNewswire
Advances in plant genetics are likely to take us to an entirely different plane of bio-energy production. Denser biomass is a useful result -- particularly for fast growing biomass crops. Later, we will have engineered plants which directly produce high value chemicals and their precursors in bulk.

Lefty-Luddites are deathly afraid of genetic engineering -- for good reason. The mastery of constructive uses of plant genetics could spell the end of all of the leftist pornographic fantasies of widespread resource scarcity and human dieoff.



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