Team aims to make sugarcane

Team aims to make sugarcane

CHAMPAIGN, lll. Department of Energy, researchers will take the first steps toward engineering two new oilrich crops. They aim to boost the natural, oilproducing capabilities of sugarcane and sorghum, increase the crops photosynthetic power and in the case of sugarcane enhance the plant cold tolerance so that it can grow in more northerly climes.

New research aims to convert sugarrich crops like sorghum pictured and sugarcane into oilrich crops. Scientists will suppress flowering in sorghum except in crops used to produce seeds for propagation to divert more of its energy into oil production. Photo courtesy Institute for Genomic Biology

The initiative, led by researchers at the University of Illinois in collaboration with scientists at the University of Florida, the University of Nebraska and the Brookhaven National Laboratory, will make use of recent advances in plant biotechnology and computer modeling to produce highyielding, coldtolerant, photosynthetically efficient crops that can be used in the production of biodiesel and jet fuel.

already have all the genetic apparatus to make oils, said Illinois crop sciences and Institute for Genomic Biology professor Stephen Long, who leads the initiative. in their genomes.

Once they have matured, sugarcane and sorghum spend much of their energy making and storing sugars, he said.

are proposing to subvert that mechanism in the plant to, instead of making sugar, use the products of photosynthesis to make oils and deposit those in the stems.

These natural plant oils, known as triacylglycerols, can be converted into diesel and jet fuel by a chemical process known as hydrotreatment.

is somewhat problematic in that we don have any pipelines for distributing it around the country, Long said. we have to deal with the blendwall that is, most current cars cannot deal with more than 10 percent ethanol, setting a limit on the amount of gasoline we can replace at present.

Traditional oilproducing plants, such as soybeans, can produce enough oil per unit of land to make this approach cost effective in the longterm without subsidies, Long said. But sugarcane and sorghum, which are among the most productive plants in agriculture, could feasibly produce more than 10 times the amount of oil per acre of crops such as canola and soybean, Long said.

The new work will build on previous studies that have identified genes that enhance oil production in plants and genes that boost their photosynthetic efficiency.

Long and his colleagues also will make use of their knowledge of Miscanthus x giganteus, a perennial grass already used as a biofuels feedstock. at the U. of I. Miscanthus can grow up to 13 feet 3.9 meters tall and is closely related to sugarcane but is much more tolerant of cold weather. states.

Another project will look at engineering bacteria to produce diesel directly and, once the process is streamlined in the bacterium, transfer the critical genes to sugarcane and sorghum.

and sugarcane will grow on quite poor land, so this should be doable without competing with foodcrop production, Long said. amount of oil we can get per unit of land area really makes this economically very viable as well, so I think it has the potential to give significant energy security to the country.