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Gene-editing sugarcane for biofuels could ‘secure the industry’s future’

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Australia’s University of Queensland (UQ) revealed a study into gene-editing sugarcane for use in renewable energy and bioplastics.

“The industry must think beyond just producing sugar, to also producing electricity, biofuels for transportation and oils to replace traditional plastics,” said Professor Robert Henry, director of the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) at UQ.

“It’s about reinventing sugarcane as a crop with a wider range of end uses, and sugarcane is ideal for renewables because it is fast-growing with abundant biomass.”

According to UQ, Henry is conducting the first gene-editing experiments to tailor sugarcane production to effectively produce biofuels and bioplastics.

The call to rethink sugarcane is supported by Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia chair Sheridan Morris.

“Gene-editing of the sugarcane genome will allow the sugar industry to explore adaptations that will reduce environmental impacts, especially on the Great Barrier Reef,” said Morris.

“It will help the industry to broaden the potential of a sugar crop to a wider range of uses. Biofuels and bioplastics will be important to the long-term future of the industry.”

Researchers sourced from QAAFI are testing a range of sugearcane varieties to identify which types could produce ethanol effectively. They are funded by the US Joint Bioenergy Institute and Sugar Research Australia.

The researchers are also collaborating with the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi to investigate the processes that breakdown sugarcane to make bioplastics.

“Drink bottles made from sugarcane bioplastics are just one product on the agenda from this collaboration,” Henry said.

“Economics is the key. Now that we understand more about the genetics of sugarcane, these sorts of products are becoming commercially realistic.”