A Sweet Transformation of Switchgrass

January 7, 2012 12:29 PM

Regardless of which plant starch is used for biofuel production to generate energy, the process starts with the sun.

For a product that will be produced and sold, it’s all about efficiency. How efficient is a particular plant at converting sunlight to biomass, and how efficient can we be in converting that biomass to usable forms of fuel?

Switchgrass has been considered a natural choice for this purpose because it is a native perennial in prairie grasslands and a relatively large producer of forage tonnage.

Now, University of California--Berkeley, researcher George Chuck and his team are about to kick the biofuel choice of switchgrass up a notch. By transferring the Cg1 corn gene into switchgrass, the team found, they could triple the amount of starch that is stored in plant stems. This makes it easier to convert starch into the sugars needed for biofuel production. The result: Second-generation cellulosic biofuels (fuel derived from nonfood crops) might be produced cheaper and easier than fuel produced with corn.

Since starch is easier to digest when compared to cellulose, "having extra starch may minimize the need for extensive pretreatment of the biomass," noted the research team at a recent presentation published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A couple of additional research findings: Switchgrass modified with the corn genes can yield as much as four times more sugar, and the altered grasses don’t flower, limiting the risk of modified plant pollen spreading into wild switchgrass populations. Because switchgrass produces well on marginal soils, there is less competition for land used to grow grain crops.

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