While the plants that will be the world’s carbon recycling tools and biomass to fuel feedstocks are under intense examination one research group has an entirely fresh take on how genetics can be researched that could lead to a very different route on how we might harvest airborne CO2 and grow biomass for fuel.

Fascination of the evolution from herbaceous, the fleshy fast growing flowering plants that have to be started each year from seeds on to wood forming structures has been an item of fascination for research for a long time. Actually the path from simple plants to today’s complex inventory isn’t set firmly enough to be a law or some such, or are the evolutionary mutations even fully explored and counted up. But this isn’t a point that answers what can be an immediate need.

Siegbert Melzer a researcher in Tom Beeckman’s research group at Flanders Institute for Biotechnology has been looking into the flowering genes of annual plants. (Published Nov 9, 2008 in Nature Genetics.) In the research the group deactivated flower-inducing genes in thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) a typical kind of annual plant. The group found that the now mutated plants lost the ability to flower but continued to grow their vegetation or flower much later.

This is very significant. Annual plants race the length of day to get seed made for each year’s investment into the species continuing for another year. Postponing seed production leaves much energy work available for more growth. The thale cress was found to add secondary growth with wood formation. With growth stopped for flowering and seed production, time and plant energy become available for more growth so consuming more CO2 and biomass for use.

A little refresher – annual plants germinate, grow, blossom and die in one growing season. They germinate quickly in spring so that they come out before other plants, thus eliminating the need to compete for food and light. The goal is to make as many seeds as possible in as short a time as possible. Annuals consume all the non-specialized cell energy in developing their flowers and seeds. So, the appearance of the flower signals the end of the plant’s growth. But they have made seeds that sense – after winter – that the moment has come to start up. Plants are able to register the lengthening of the days. At the longer days in spring or summer, a signal is sent from the leaves to the growth tops to activate a limited number of the flower or blooming-induction genes.

That’s the point where the Flanders group gene manipulation intercedes.

Perennials winter over and grow again the following year. Perennials have more evolved life strategies for surviving in poor conditions. They compose perennial structures such as root systems, over wintering buds, bulbs or tubers. These structures contain cell groups that are not yet specialized and hold a store of energy, but which can later be converted when required into new organs such as stalks and leaves. Of interest is the perennials have a root system, saved energy, and structure in place at the beginning of a growing season. It’s that above the soil structure that is of interest for harvesting. With much of the work already in place at the beginning of each season perennials could have a huge productive advantage.

Thus the aggressive growth gene set of annuals modified into perennial growth patterns may offer a new path to CO2 recycling and biomass production. The idea of having annuals growing more biomass, adding perennial root systems, perhaps more tolerance for poor soils and marginal land for growing range, makes modified annuals a field right at the very start of its existence with enormous potential.

Plant development has just hit another milestone. While the potential is still visionary the possibilities are awe-inspiring. It may even start research into the other direction – bringing the annual plants genetics into perennials.


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