Today I want to mention a couple recent developments on the bioenergy feedstock front. Specifically, these deal with engineering the genetics of a bioenergy crop with enhanced characteristics for bioenergy.
First up, is switchgrass with a gene that prevents flowering and causes “juvenile” cell walls to be maintained in switchgrass (basically there is alot more starch floating around in the plants because they aren’t making seeds and don’t need to dedicate that starch to seed).
In the research article, there is an unanswered question as to why this happens in switchgrass but not Maize, Arabidopsis, or Brachypodia (which they also looked at). Otherwise, seems like an interesting approach. Another thing we would still need to look at, and the authors mention this, is whether the plants would be more susceptible to diseases and pathogens with extra starch floating around. Here is the quick summary, and the article link is below:
Next, is slightly old news, but I wanted to point it out because 1) it directly relates to the topic above and they could work well together and 2) it is much further along in the regulatory and R&D pipeline. Syngenta’s amylase corn, engineered with an enzyme to break down starch within the corn itself:
So if we could have a grass that has both more starch, and the enzyme that breaks it down in one plant that sounds like a winning combination..
but, more importantly, we need more research on feedstock genetics to really realize what potential there might be for energy from plants.
ARPA-E realizes this, and is funding a bunch of feedstock related research to improve plants. Check out the projects that have been funded here.
Here is the reference for the switchgrass article I mentioned:
Chuck GS, Tobias C, Sun L, Kraemer F, Li C, Dibble D, Arora R, Bragg JN, Vogel JP, Singh S, Simmons BA, Pauly M, & Hake S (2011). Overexpression of the maize Corngrass1 microRNA prevents flowering, improves digestibility, and increases starch content of switchgrass. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 21987797