Genomics Could Help Create Better Biofuels

plant cell wall image
Image from Wikimedia Commons

I don't know about you, but I often have a hard time keeping track of all the new crops being proposed as potential biofuel feedstocks. While switchgrass has garnered most of the attention in recent months, both here and on other sites, a few dark horse candidates have risen to the fore -- such as kudzu and Miscanthus. In a new review article published in the latest issue of Nature, DoE Joint Genome Institute Director Eddy Rubin provides a very helpful, and thorough, overview of all the main crops whose genomes have already been analyzed. foxtail millet photo
Image from Wikimedia Commons
The new Apollo moon shot
Comparing the current biofuels arms race to the Apollo moon shot and Human Genome Project, Rubin argues that many of the new genomic technologies being developed in the lab and by businesses will help pave the way for "economically-viable and more socially acceptable biofuels based on lignocellulose". While these technologies are still in their infancies, he believes the identification and isolation of specific genes in current crops -- genes for drought resistance and pest tolerance, for example -- will lead to the domestication of carbon-neutral "super" crops.

Engineering the ideal biofuel feedstock
Scientists are working on new methods to take this genetic information and breed ideal feedstocks, whose stem thickness, cell wall chemistry and branching make them more easy to break down and, thus, more suitable for use in biofuel production. They are also studying several microbial strains, including Clostridia, whose genes for degrading cellulose -- an ability that is key to producing cellulosic ethanol -- could one day find their way into the next advanced crop.

Metagenomics could lead to the next biofuel technology breakthrough
Metagenomics, a technology used to identify enzymes for use in biofuel production, could open up a vast array of new traits and genes by providing a quicker, more effective means of surveying the microbial landscape. Of most interest to biofuel enthusiasts will be the exhaustive list of current and emerging feedstock genomes Rudin provides; in addition to the usual suspects (your switchgrass, sorghum and soybean), he also describes some promising new species, including the oil-producing alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii.

We've seen a lot news and press releases in recent week touting the merits of algal biodiesel, and it sure looks as though the research is starting to back up some of these claims. While I'm not exactly thrilled to see all this genetic engineering going on, it may be the best chance we have of ramping up our production of sustainable biofuel. Algae are, in my opinion, currently the most promising, marketable biofuel feedstock, with perennial grass species like Miscanthus, rapiergrass and bermudagrass (based just on the results of some of the initial large-scale trials) close behind.

Via ::DOE JGI: Director Eddy Rubin Highlights the Genomics of Plant-based Biofuels in the Journal Nature (press release)

More about genomics and biofuels
::Geneticist Craig Venter Wants to Create Fuel from CO2
::Will Custom-Made Microbes Help Power the Future?

Tags: Alternative Energy | Biofuels


treehugger slideshows