The burning bush, known for its brilliant red fall foliage, could fire new advances in biofuels and low-calorie food oils.  Michigan State University scientists using new low-cost DNA sequencing technology applied to seeds of the species Euonymus alatus, a common ornamental planting known as the burning bush was crucial to identifying the gene responsible for the bush’s manufacture of a novel, high-quality oil. But despite its name, the burning bush is not a suitable oil crop.

A Mature Burning Bush in Full Fall Regalia. Click image for the largest view.

So the MSU team inserted the genes into the mustard weed a plant well known to researchers as Arabidopsis and a cousin to commercial oilseed canola.  The burning bush gene encodes an enzyme that produces a substantial yield of unusual compounds called acetyl glycerides, or acTAGs.  The oil produced by the burning bush enzyme claims unique and valuable characteristics. This is not your usual bio oil stuff – its much lower viscosity or thickness.

Cutaway View of the Burning Bush Seed. Click image for more info.

Related vegetable oils are the basis of the world’s oilseed industry for the food and biofuels markets.  Timothy Durrett, an MSU plant biology research associate explains, “The high viscosity of most plant oils prevents their direct use in diesel engines, so the oil must be converted to biodiesel. We demonstrated that acTAGs possess lower viscosity than regular plant oils. The lower viscosity acTAGs could therefore be useful as a direct-use biofuel for many diesel engines.”  This would skip some expensive steps and the creation of some unneeded byproducts.

Improved low-temperature characteristics noted for the oil also could make it suitable for diesel fuel, Durrett said. And acTAGs boast lower calorie content than other vegetable oils, Durrett added, “thus they could be used as a reduced-calorie food oil substitute.”

Arabidopsis Flower Leaves Seeds. Click image for the largest view.

Lets see . . . that Aribidopsis is also known as the often-notorious mustard weed, you can use the oil directly in a diesel and use it in foods as well.  Are Michigan State’s people on to something?

Durrett published the findings in the May 18 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with University Distinguished Professor of plant biology John Ohlrogge, visiting professor of plant biology Michael Pollard and other MSU researchers.

The burning bus is not rare; you’ve probably seen it in the fall.  The MSU team gathered its samples from plantings around MSU’s campus. The researchers now are working to improve the modified mustard weed seeds’ acTAGs yield and are already reporting purity levels of up to 80 percent.

Professor Pollard said, “It should now be possible to produce acetyl glycerides in transgenic oilseed crops or single cell production systems such as algae that are the focus of much current effort in biofuels research. With the basic genetics defined and thus one major technical risk greatly reduced, the way is open to produce and assess this novel oil in food and nonfood applications.”  Pollard, understandably, is keen to explore the technology’s commercial potential.

It seems the native oil in the burning bush is, so far, the optimal bio oil.  As its easy use in the common diesel engine, edible and transferable into a plant known to grow where it’s not wanted the MSU group are on to something.

Its still very early, the yields, harvest ability matters, storage and the separation techniques are still yet to be addressed.  But the innovative thinking to connect an optimal bio oil and find a way to get it into a farmable plant is connecting – a thought process that has as just shown, impressive and desirable results.


7 Comments so far

  1. russ on June 1, 2010 6:29 AM

    İn the PNW it is often used for highway landscaping in areas where no water is available – only seasonal – rain and the plant grows fine. Certainly it would grow faster with irrigation.

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  3. russ on November 8, 2010 8:44 AM

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  4. Christopher Rahr on May 23, 2011 8:58 PM

    Great read. Thanks for the info!

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  6. Edgar Deroberts on August 30, 2011 3:32 PM

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  7. Lara Ordones on September 16, 2011 12:15 PM

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