Arabidopsis Plant  (Source:
Biofuel that won't negatively affect the food chain

Researchers from the University of Cambridge, who are funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and are now part of the BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre, have found plant enzymes that usually make energy hard to extract when it is stored in straw, wood and many other non-edible plant parts. This discovery can improve the "viability" of sustainable biofuels without negatively affecting the food chain.

The research team, led by Professor Paul Dupree, studied and identified genes for two different types of enzymes that make straw, stalks and wood tough, and also make sugars hard to extract in order to make bioethanol. Knowing which enzymes make extraction difficult can help crop-breeding programs produce non-edible plant parts that require less chemicals, energy and processing when being converted into renewable products like biofuels. 

"There is a lot of energy stored in wood and straw in the form of a substance called lignocellulose," said Dupree. "We wanted to find ways to make it easier to get at this energy and extract it in the form of sugars that can be fermented to produce bioethanol and other products." 

Plants obtain their rigidity and strength from lignocellulose, and a key component of lignocellulose is xylan. Xylan is locked away inside wood and straw with potential to provide one third of sugars used to make bioethanol from these inedible plant parts. Unlocking energy from lignocellulose will be important to the potential use of inedible plant parts as biofuels.

The researchers came to their conclusions after studying the Arabidopsis plant, which lacks the two main enzymes that create the xylan in the lignocellulose part in plants. Stems without these enzymes were weaker, but grew normally and required less effort to convert xylan into sugar. 

"As oil reserves deplete, we must urgently find alternatives to oil-based fuels, plastics, lubricants and other products," said Duncan Egger, BBSRC Bioenergy Champion. "This research is a good example where understanding the fundamental biology of plants gives us the foundation to use plants to produce a raft of important products."

According to Dupree, the next step will be to create new varieties of bioenergy crops to see if they can breed plants like willow and miscanthus grass with certain properties in order to "develop more sustainable processes for generating fuels from crop residues." 

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