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Biofuels: can scientists engineer faster-growing grasses?

Perennial grasses can be used to make biofuels, but they take years to grow. A new gene discovery could help them grow faster and reduce the timeline.
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Written by Andrew Nusca on

Earlier this month, we asked whether perennial grasses such as switchgrass and miscanthus can replace corn as the crop of choice for ethanol, a biofuel.

The pros of grasses: they're cheap, they don't compete with food production and they're far less intense on the ground on which they grow.

The cons: they're unproven at scale, they lack the financial support of the federal government that corn and soy have and they take a long time to develop root systems prior to harvest -- two to three years, versus annually.

While the first two cons require a policy change, the last is a natural restriction that can't be avoided.

Or can it?

Scientists from the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy say that tinkering with a single gene may produce perennial grasses with more robust roots, reducing the time of the growth period necessary before they are ready to be processed into biofuels.

A team led by Philip Benfey sought to identify genes that become active at the growth point when cells stop dividing -- "proliferation" -- and start becoming specialized, a stage called "differentiation."

The researchers looked at the root system of the common lab plant Arabidopsis and, through screening, discovered a single gene called UPB1 that controls the gene expression of enzymes called peroxidases.

Peroxidases control the balance of free radicals between the area where cells proliferate and differentiate.

When the researchers experimentally disrupted the activity of UPB1 in the plant root, it altered the balance of free radicals, delaying the cells from differentiating and instead allowed them to continue to proliferate.

That in turn allowed the plants to have faster growing roots with more and larger cells, which can help reduce the time the grasses need to develop root systems. (As you might suspect, when the researchers artificially increased UPB1 activity, the growth of plant roots slowed.)

"It suggests that plants are not growing at their full potential," Benfey said in a statement.

It also suggests that the scientists can engineer bigger and stronger plants with the capacity to sequester more earth-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Benfey's startup company, GrassRoots Biotechnology, has acquired the patent and is now working on commercializing the discovery.

Photo: GrassRoots Biotechnology

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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