Mariam Sticklen Examines a Corn SpecimenWednesday saw Mariam Sticklen, Michigan State University Professor of Crop and Soil Science, present her work to the 235th national American Chemical Society meeting in New Orleans. The presentation, titled “Plant Genetic Engineering for Biofuel Production: Towards Affordable Cellulosic Ethanol” it will appear in the June issue of Nature Review Genetics. All the sit up and notice is because:

Professor Sticklen has inserted the genetic code for producing an enzyme from a microbe that lives inside a cow’s stomach into the corn plant. The microbe produces one of the three enzymes that are needed to convert cellulose or plant fibers into sugars. Professor Sticklen has now completed all three genetically engineered corn versions to culminate in a self sugar converting plant.

The first version, released in 2007, cuts the cellulose into large pieces with an enzyme that came from a microbe that lives in hot spring water. The second adds a gene from a naturally occurring fungus, takes the large cellulose pieces created by the first enzyme and breaks them into sugar pairs. The third and last genetic modification with the gene from a microbe in a cow’s ruminate stomach, produces an enzyme that separates pairs of sugar molecules into simple sugars. These single sugars are readily fermentable into ethanol.

The astonishment comes from the discovery of a way to grow the plants themselves to contain the necessary enzymes. This discovery and the genetic engineering offer a huge gain to biological processes in transforming atmospheric CO2 into plants and then back to fuels. However the creativity and problem solving is magnified when we realize that the placement of these genes is crucial. If located so they are active while the plant is alive, the plant cells wouldn’t be able to function and instead they’d begin to digest themselves.

Sticklen has found the location that allows the expression of the genes and delays the activity of the enzymes until needed, the corn plant’s vacuole. The gene stays safely tucked away until after the harvest. The vacuole location keeps the gene activity from expressing in the roots, seeds or pollen. Once the stalks and leaves are harvested, the enzymes can be triggered to work.

Professor Sticklen is quoted speaking to the difficulty of the work by making a comparison to adding one more light to a Christmas tree, “You have a lot of wiring, switches and even zoning. There are a lot of changes. We have to increase production levels and even put it in the right place in the cell.”

That’s three genes, all introduced into a plant, first sourced from a hot spring microbe, secondly from a fungus and lastly from the bacteria in a cow’s stomach, strategically placed so that the plant thrives and when harvested turns itself into sugars.

The main goal for preparing biomass to be made into fuels by a biological process path always seems to need the sugar step. If Professor Sticklen and her colleagues can engineer plants species that provide more tons of dry biomass per land area unit, such as switchgrass or miscanthus, or something not yet realized, that this new technology would simplify and economize the processing into fuels, a much larger biomatter to fuel source base would suddenly exist.

Innovation and creativity, paired up with determination and deep knowledge can just astonish the rest of us. Congratulations Professor Sticklen, I am very duly impressed.


2 Comments so far

  1. Good News about Rising Fuel Prices | Life on the Road - Trucking News Blog on April 30, 2008 5:05 AM

    […] An Astonishing Innovation in BioFuels […]

  2. making biodiesel on July 8, 2008 12:27 PM

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