University of Illinois plant geneticist Stephen Moose has developed a corn plant with enormous potential for increased corn plant biomass. He explains that the energy to make the seed goes instead into the stalk and leaves. “We had been working with this gene for awhile. We thought there would be more wax on the leaves and there was. But we also got this other benefit, that it’s a lot bigger.”

What happened was is that the corn’s gene known as Glossy15 was originally described for its role in giving corn seedlings a waxy coating that acts like a sunscreen for the young plant, without it the seedling leaves appear shiny and glossy in sunlight. More study showed that the main function of Glossy15 is to slow down leaf shoot maturation.

Moose wondered what would happen if they turned up the action of this gene. “What happens is that you get bigger plants, possibly because they’re more sensitive to the longer days of summer. We put in another (Glossy15 corn gene back in the DNA) and increased its activity. So, it makes the plant slow down and gets much bigger at the end of the season.”

What Moose’s work illustrates is that genetics for recycling CO2 to re-access it for fuel production is just past the conception stage. Others are working on switchgrass and miscanthus. Around the world plants such as jatropha and other plants are being researched. The news often sees a “research paper” or story that concludes that biomass and biofuels are in one form or other seen as dead ends, but 50 years of grain and food crop yield gains shadows such commentary to near darkness.

Moose’s corn (Might be naming it now.) seems to move the production of starch from the seed kernels to sugar production in the leaves and stalks. Moose calls it ‘sugar corn’ because the apparent drive was to find a corn plant that would serve as a better food for beef and dairy cattle. Standard corn stalks and leaves are chopped up with the grain to entice the animals to eat it. It is usually fermented too, to help breakdown the fibrous materials and act as a preservative. Growing a corn plant that has more sugar would be more palatable for animals and would have sugar rather than starch for fuel production so reducing the costs, intensity or skipping a fuel production step.

The new corn plant might also aid in cutting back on the fats in the beef people eat. The plant as a beef cattle food might fit the standard for grass fed beef, a lower fat, and more healthy way to produce protein.

The research should also get to market pretty quickly. Moose tested his hypothesis with other corn lines and the effect was the same. “We essentially can make any corn variety bigger with this gene. And it can be done in one cross and we know exactly which gene does it.”

To be commercialized, this sugar corn plant it would have to get government regulatory approval, but Moose said that this is about as safe a gene as you can get. “It’s a gene that’s already in the corn — all we did was to put an extra copy in that amps it up.”

Moose’s findings from his research were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

What one should keep an eye out for is this same level of intuition and innovation across the full spectrum of plants in consideration for fuel production. The U.S. in particular and other researchers around the world have revolutionized food production such that 6.5 billion people can survive on the planet, with room for more, even though that isn’t a good idea. The same revolution with a little different target of more sugar and starches convertible to fuels is getting underway. Corn, since the mid 1930s has increased about 5 fold, wheat nearly triple and soya doubled, all with more yield growth to come. Rice is also much better yielding with much effort in to pest and disease resistance bringing incredible increases in rice supplies.

It seems that genetic technology has managed to stay ahead of the growth in population for foods. There is every reason to think that research and technology will be just as effective for providing the science that will keep liquid fuels in the future for a very long time, too. Its just now getting the first strides underway.


5 Comments so far

  1. Monte Gowler on May 27, 2011 9:12 AM

    I REALLY liked your post and blog! It took me a minute bit to find your site…but I bookmarked it. Would you mind if I posted a link back to your post?

  2. Taylor Pniewski on August 27, 2011 10:22 AM

    Interesting read, perhaps the best article iv’e browse today. We learn everyday cheers to you!

  3. Shery Fraize on September 6, 2011 1:04 AM

    I’ve been checking your blog for a while now, seems like everyday I learn something new 🙂 Thanks

  4. Adrian Falvo on September 27, 2011 12:40 AM

    Intriguing post. I have been searching for some good resources for solar panels and discovered your blog. Planning to bookmark this one!

  5. Laura Lough on September 27, 2011 1:36 AM

    I was just having a conversation over this I am glad I came across this it cleared some of the questions I had.

Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind