An almost entirely accidental discovery by University of Guelph researchers could transform food and biofuel production and increase carbon capture on farmland.
By tweaking a plant’s genetic profile, the researchers doubled the plant’s growth and increased seed production by more than 400 per cent.
The findings were published in the March 2016 issue of Plant Biotechnology Journal.
The team studied Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant often used in lab studies because of its ease of use and its similarity to some common farm crops. They found that inserting a particular corn enzyme caused the plant’s growth rate to skyrocket.
“Even if the effects in a field-grown crop were less, such as only a tenth of what we’ve seen in the lab, that would still represent an increase in yield of 40 to 50 per cent, compared with the average one to two per cent a year that most breeding programs deliver,” said Prof. Michael Emes, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB).
Biofuels pioneer Mascoma LLC and the Department of Energy’s BioEnergy Science Center have developed a revolutionary strain of yeast that could help significantly accelerate the development of biofuels from nonfood plant matter.
The approach could provide a pathway to eventual expansion of biofuels production beyond the current output limited to ethanol derived from corn.
C5 FUEL™, engineered by researchers at Mascoma and BESC, features fermentation and ethanol yields that set a new standard for conversion of biomass sugars from pretreated corn stover—the non-edible portion of corn crops such as the stalk—converting up to 97 percent of the plant sugars into fuel.
Researchers announced that while conventional yeast leaves more than one-third of the biomass sugars unused in the form of xylose, Mascoma’s C5 FUEL™ efficiently converts this xylose into ethanol, and it accomplishes this feat in less than 48 hours. The finding was presented today at the 31st International Fuel Ethanol Workshop in Minneapolis.
“The ability to partner the combined expertise at Mascoma and BESC in engineering microbes to release and convert sugars from lignocellulosic biomass has greatly accelerated the translation of basic research outcomes to a commercial product,” BESC Director Paul Gilna said.
Gilna noted that this success and continued efforts through BESC could go a long way toward reducing the cost of ethanol and growing the number of commercial-level ethanol production plants. A key focus of BESC is to use basic research capabilities and expertise to validate the consolidated bioprocessing approach to improve cost competitiveness.
“Driving down the cost to develop, verify and consolidate bioprocessing was at the heart of the BESC effort when we began in 2007, and this achievement allows us to advance to the next challenge,” Gilna said. “This accomplishment represents a clearly impactful example of how our partnering with industry can accelerate the translation of our research capabilities and findings into commercial products.”
Although cellulosic biomass such as corn stover, wheat straw and bagasse (the fibrous remains after sugar is extracted from sugarcane or sorghum) is abundant and cheap, because of recalcitrance — a plant’s resistance to releasing sugars for conversion to alcohol – it is much more difficult to utilize than corn. However, Mascoma’s new strain of yeast, which is one of many strains Mascoma developed as part of BESC over the last two years, proved highly effective at xylose conversion.
While most processing methods simply convert cellulose to sugar, this new approach also converts hemicellulose, which significantly increases overall sugar yield and thereby increases the level of ethanol produced. In fact, the new strain of yeast simultaneously yields 97 percent conversion of xylose and glucose—and does so in a significantly shorter period of time than existing approaches.