Biomass gene therapy could increase bioethanol refinery productivity

A new study suggests that by suppressing a gene that stiffens cell walls, biorefineries would have access to 60% more sugar than they would otherwise from the same amount of feedstock.

The researchers from the UK, Brazil and the US announced the discovery in New Phytologist. Cell wall stiffening evolved in grass as a method to impede digestion by grazers. By reducing the effect of the gene both growers and refiners of bioethanol feedstock could see big gains in efficiency. So far, the researchers have been able to reduce feruloylation by about 20% in their genetically modified plants.

Rowan Mitchell, a plant biologist at Rothamsted Research and the team’s co-leader, said: "The suppression has no obvious effect on the plant's biomass production or on the appearance of the transgenic plants with lower feruloylation." Moving forwards, he said that "Scientifically, we now want to find out how the gene mediates feruloylation. In that way, we can see if we can make the process even more efficient."

"In Brazil alone, the potential markets for this technology were valued last year at R$1300M ($400M) for biofuels," says Hugo Molinari, Principal Investigator of the Laboratory of Genetics and Biotechnology at Embrapa Agroenergy, part of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) and the team's co-leader. He added that there could be added savings in the reduced need to use enzymes to catalyse the refining process.

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