A sizable part of the world is still after decades locked up on GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) crops.  The locked up minds have locked out huge food production potential and starved millions.  When the headline out of Iowa State University by Mike Krapfl, “Iowa State, Ames Lab Chemists Aid Study of Mutated Plants That May Be Better for Biofuels”, one has to have a look.

A research team led by Seth DeBolt, an associate professor of horticulture at the University of Kentucky in Lexington with Chris Somerville, the Philomathia Professor of Alternative Energy and director of the Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of California, Berkeley and Mei Hong, an Iowa State professor of chemistry and an associate of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory, with Tuo Wang, an Iowa State graduate student in chemistry are showing genetic mutations to cellulose in plants could improve the conversion of cellulosic biomass into biofuels.

The team recently published its findings in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The point the team makes is genetic mutations in plants could make it easier to break down plant cellulose to the sugars.  This is a reversal of the effort to find ever better and cheaper processing tools like enzymes, it’s coming at the problem in the opposite direction.

The team used Arabidopsis thaliana, a common model plant in research studies, and its cellulose synthase membrane complex that produces the microfibrils of cellulose that surround all plant cells and form the basic structure of plant cell walls.

Mutant Plant Images by Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy. See the study at PNAS linked above for compete details. Click image for the largest view.

The target is those ribbons of cellulose made of crystallized sugars. The crystal structure makes it difficult for enzymes to break in to the cellulose to free the sugars that can be fermented into alcohol for biofuels. DeBolt assembled a research team to see if genetic mutations in the plant membrane complex could produce what the researchers have called “wounded” cellulose that’s not as crystalline and therefore easier to break down into sugar.

Iowa State’s Hong had done previous studies of plant cell walls. She used her lab’s solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance technology to study the cell walls created by the newly mutated genetics. The goals were to collect as much information as possible about the molecular structure of the cell walls to see if mutations to the plants resulted in changes to the cellulose.

Hong summarizes the results, “We found that the crystalline cellulose content had decreased in the mutant cell walls. We can quantify the degree of change, and be very specific about the type of change.”

The cellulose microfibrils in the mutant cell walls, for example, were thinner than those found in normal plants, Hong explained. The studies also found an additional type of cellulose with an intermediate degree of crystal structure.

The desired result: the findings suggest the genetic mutations did create differences in cellulose production and formation.

Plus the study also reports the cellulose produced by the mutated plant could be more efficiently processed into the sugars necessary for biofuel production.

Summing up Hong says, “What this work suggests, in very broad terms, is that it is possible to modify cellulose structure by genetic methods, so that potentially one can more easily extract cellulose from plants as energy sources.”

The research team’s paper gets very optimistic saying developing techniques to modify the structure of plant cellulose in crops for better and easier conversion to fermentable sugars “could be transformative in a bio-based economy.”

The Iowa State duo contributed their expertise in solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to the study; the means by which the scientists can have a good close look.

The study offers the idea as now plausible to modify the cellulose structure in plant cell walls by genetic methods, so one can potentially more easily extract cellulose from plants as energy sources.

On the other hand, much more research is going to be needed.  In particular if the crops that are to be mutated will be exposed to the weather and environmental stresses.  It won’t be especially valuable if the plants can’t stand up to the environment.

But cultivation on land outdoors is just one segment, the research may be very important for single or very small aquatics starting with algae.  In controlled environments, soil or aquatic, the research may payoff big and quickly.

Finally, one has to note the good work of Mr. Krapfl.  The press release doesn’t seem to offer GMO directly, using the word “mutant” instead.  Mutant is a sure attention grabber, but your humble writer isn’t going to think that mutant instead of GMO is going to reset the minds that can’t accept GMO.  Thanks Mike, I got a smile from the headline.


2 Comments so far

  1. Matt Musson on March 2, 2012 7:47 AM

    Whenever I have studied mutant cellulose in plants I always found Zombie Grass was the best bet. Unfortunately, you have to fertilize it with human brains.

    (Roswell and Area 51 grasses were always a distant second.)

  2. Charlie Peters on April 17, 2012 11:00 AM

    Federal ethanol policy increases Government motors oil use and Big oil profit.

    It is reported that today California is using Brazil sugar cane ethanol at $0.16 per gal increase over using GMO corn fuel ethanol. In this game the cars and trucks get to pay and Big oil profits are the result that may be ready for change.

    We do NOT support AB 523 or SB 1396 unless the ethanol mandate is changed to voluntary ethanol in our gas.

    Folks that pay more at the pump for less from Cars, trucks, food, water & air need better, it is time.

    The car tax of AB 118 Nunez is just a simple Big oil welfare program, AAA questioned the policy and some folks still agree.

    AB 523 & SB 1326 are just a short put (waiver) from better results.

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