Engineering Plants for Better Biofuel Production
Biochemistry and Molecular Biology professor Christoph Benning and colleagues were initially the “odd people out” at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) because, while other researchers were primarily focused on making ethanol from crop residues and cell walls, they were trying to synthesize oil in vegetative tissues for use as a biodiesel fuel or other products.
“Now our oil project is distinguishing the GLBRC from other bioenergy research centers,” Benning said. “Ethanol is still the biggest biofuel out there, but the possibilities for using plant oils, especially for biodiesel products, are now an accepted part of the biofuels research.”
During five years of work, Benning and the research team began by identifying five genes from one-celled green algae. From the five, they identified one that, when inserted into Arabidopsis thaliana (one of the model organisms used for studying plant biology), successfully boosted oil levels in the plant’s leaves. To confirm that the improved plants were more nutritious and contained more energy, the research team fed the leaves to caterpillar larvae. The larvae that were fed the oily leaves from the enhanced plants gained more weight than worms that ate regular leaves.
Traditional biofuel research in this area has focused on improving the oil content of seeds because oil production in seeds occurs naturally. Little research, however, has been done to test oil production of leaves and stems because plants don’t typically store fats/lipids in these tissues.
“Now, it’s a proven concept that can now be used to boost a plant’s oil production for biofuel use, as well as improve the nutrition level of animal feed,” Benning said.
For the next phase of the research, Benning and colleagues will work to enhance oil production in grasses and algae that have economic value.
“If oil can be extracted from leaves, stems and seeds, the potential energy capacity of plants could double,” said Benning, who believes that the oil produced will burn directly in an engine that uses No. 4 diesel fuel—the type of engines used in trains, ships, generators and power plants (though not in cars or trucks, but that might be another area of research later).
“In addition, if algae can be engineered to continuously produce high levels of oil, they can become a viable alternative to traditional agricultural crops used for biofuels.”
— Val Osowski, College of Natural Science