Last week, Ars Technica reported that a team of biologists working with the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory have developed a shortcut for processing switchgrass into biofuels.
The teams focus has been on a complex polymer in switchgrass called lingen, which is described as “tough enough to support everything from buildings to the largest living thing on the planet, a giant sequoia.” Lingen forms a sort of “lock” in cellular walls, holding in chemical sugars – sugars which, are the essential ingredients required to produce ethanol fuels.
So far, extracting those sugars from lingen-rich plant matter has proved difficult, but the team has identified mutations in the gene for a specific enzyme (caffeic acid 3-O-methyltransferase, for those of you who took more chemistry courses than I did) has been linked to reduced lignen production. So, the team created a piece of DNA that encoded an interfering RNA sequence that would, ideally, make limit the enzyme’s production and make the switchgrass “easier to digest”.
The results thus far seem promising, with the authors of the study reporting nearly 40 percent more production under some conditions. The genetic modification of the switchgrass also made the conversion process simpler, since pretreatment with hot acid (a step normally used to make the cellulose more accessible to enzymes that will digest it) is no longer required … which is, itself, good news, since no acid means no cleanup, and fewer steps in production means lower overall costs to producers and (ideally) consumers.
So, the process works – but the real question moving forward seems to be how the public will react to more GMO plants “out there”, and how the new switchgrass will affect the ecosystems to which it’s introduced. Either of those topics, I might add, are way over my head. What about you? Let us know how you feel about genetically-engineered biofuel crops in the comments, below.