In the real wild world plants have to make tradeoffs such as growth and reproduction for example.  In cultivation and agriculture plant choices are manipulated for harvesting the desired product such as seed, leaves or stalks.

At the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy (IGSP) manipulating a single gene may give perennial grasses more robust roots and speed up the timeline for creating biofuels.  The gene and its operations are described in the November 11 issue of the journal Cell.

Philip Benfey, director of the IGSP Center for Systems Biology explains a problem with perennial grasses, including switchgrass and miscanthus that are important biofuels crops and can be harvested repeatedly, just like lawn grass, but before harvest levels of growth can happen, the root system needs time to get established.

Benfey points out, “These biofuel crops usually can’t be harvested until the second or third year. A method to improve root growth could have a major role in reducing the time to harvest for warm season grasses.”

The Benfey led team at Duke appears to have found a way to do just that. They took a directed genomic approach aimed at identifying genes that become active when cells stop dividing and start taking on the characteristics of the mature, adult cell they are to become. “We systematically looked for those genes that come ‘on’ precisely when cells transition from proliferation to differentiation and then turn ‘off’ again just as quickly,” Benfey said.

The team’s genome-wide search in the roots of the familiar laboratory plant Arabidopsis and subsequent screening of mutant lines turned up a single gene, which the researchers call UPBEAT1 (UPB1). Further study showed that UPB1 controls the gene expression of enzymes known as peroxidases.

They then showed that these peroxidases control the balance of free radicals between the zone of cell proliferation and the zone of cell elongation where differentiation begins. (Although free radicals are probably most familiar as agents of stress to be combated with antioxidants, Benfey noted that the balance of free radicals has also been implicated in the control of a similar transition from proliferation to differentiation in animals.)

Duke's Plant Root Manipulated Gene Activity Comparison Graphic. Click image for the largest view.

When the researchers experimentally disrupted UPB1 activity in the plant root, it altered the balance of free radicals such that cells delayed their differentiation and continued growing. Those plants ended up with faster-growing roots, having more and larger cells. When UPB1 activity was artificially increased, the growth of plant roots slowed.  “It’s possible that by manipulating a single gene, you could get a plant with rapid growth,” Benfey said.  Interestingly, UPB1 appears to act independently of plant hormones that play well-known roles in the balance between cell division and differentiation.

Benfey notes that from an engineering perspective, the prospect of enhancing growth by taking a gene away, as opposed to adding one, is particularly appealing and says, “It also suggests that plants are not growing at their full potential.”

In addition to their potential in biofuels production, the findings might also lead to new ways to produce bigger and stronger plants with the capacity to sequester more earth-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, Benfey says.  Perhaps viewing rest of the iceberg potential escapes the politically correct view at Duke.

The main candidates for biofuel growth, switchgrass and miscanthus grow such that producers cannot harvest the first year’s crop because it takes a year or usually two for the root system to get established   If plant genetic engineering could reduce that waiting time, it would be a huge boon for farmers and biofuel producers.

As the research sits, practical application is still several steps away. One of the first orders of business is to see if the finding can be applied to the other desired crops besides Arabidopsis.  Then tests to see what the effect might be in the later and other growth stages.  An ideal scenario would be to accelerate root growth followed by stalk and leaf growth later in the plant’s life.

The Duke team has made considerable headway and likely other crop seed producers are paying close attention.

Working with Benfey are Hironaka Tsukagoshi and Wolfgang Busch at Duke.  The work was funded by the National Science Foundation. Benfey’s startup company, GrassRoots Biotechnology Inc., has acquired the patent for this discovery with its potential in mind. The company’s primary goals are the development of next-generation biofuels and the use of root systems for carbon sequestration. Let’s hope the new firm sees the licensing potential as well.


7 Comments so far

  1. Tweets that mention Faster Biofuel Plant Growth | New Energy and Fuel -- on November 27, 2010 7:35 AM

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  2. Anshu Raghuwanshi on November 29, 2010 11:20 PM

    I found this work very interesting especially in terms of applicability to biofuel crops.
    I have generated worl’d first transgenic sweet sorghum plants.

    Link of teh media release attached
    Would be very happy to see benefit of this gene introduction in grasses.

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