Michigan State University (MSU) researchers have successfully engineered a plant (Arabidopsis thaliana) with oily leaves.  The team has shown they could use an algae gene involved in oil production to engineer a plant that stores lipids or vegetable oil in its leaves – an uncommon occurrence for most plants.

The results have been published in the current issue of The Plant Cell, the journal of the American Society of Plant Biologists. The research could also apply to foods as the development could lead to improved animal feeds as well as enhance biofuel production.

Traditionally biofuel research focuses on improving the oil content of plant seeds.  The prime reason for the focus is because oil production in seeds occurs naturally. Little research, however, has been done to examine the oil production of leaves and stems, as plants don’t typically store their energy rich lipids in these tissues.

Caterpillar Larvae Confirms the Value of Oily Plant Leaf.  Image Credit: Kurt Stepnitz. Click image for the largest view.

Caterpillar Larvae Confirms the Value of Oily Plant Leaf. Image Credit: Kurt Stepnitz. Click image for the largest view.

Christoph Benning, MSU professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, led a collaborative effort with colleagues from the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. The team’s efforts resulted in a significant early step toward producing better plants for biofuels.

Benning said, “Many researchers are trying to enhance plants’ energy density, and this is another way of approaching it. It’s a proof-of-concept that could be used to boost plants’ oil production for biofuel use as well as improve the nutrition levels of animal feed.”

Benning and his colleagues Gregg Howe, biochemistry and molecular biology professor; John Olhrogge, University Distinguished Professor of plant biology; and Gavin Reid, biochemistry and molecular biology associate professor, began by identifying five genes from one-celled green algae. From the five, they identified one that, when inserted into Arabidopsis thaliana, successfully boosted oil levels in the plant’s leaf tissue.

To confirm that the improved plants were more nutritious and contained more energy, the research team fed them to caterpillar larvae. The larvae that were fed oily leaves from the enhanced plants gained more weight than worms that ate regular leaves.

For the next phase of the research, Benning and his colleagues will work to enhance oil production in grasses and algae that have economic value. The benefits of this research line are worth pursuing.

“If oil can be extracted from leaves, stems and seeds, the potential energy capacity of plants may double,” Benning said. “Further, if algae can be engineered to continuously produce high levels of oil, rather than only when they are under stress, they can become a viable alternative to traditional agricultural crops.”

Moreover, algae can be grown on poor agricultural land – a big plus in the food vs. fuel debate, he added.

Kenneth Keegstra, GLBRC scientific director and MSU University Distinguished Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology provides an overview saying, “These basic research findings are significant in advancing the engineering of oil-producing plants. They will help write a new chapter on the development of production schemes that will enhance the quantity, quality and profitability of both traditional and nontraditional crops.”

The MSU/Great Lakes team has a hit here.  There will surely be more paths found now that the first one has been shown to work.  Benning offers a very attractive forecast with a doubling of energy values from plants.  That kind of change isn’t being offered often, so when it does the rush for more information and innovation can be very productive.

With the U.S. awash in natural gas and oil drilling into tight oil formations racing ahead with fracturing technology the energy shortage isn’t in North America nor does it look like there will be one anytime soon.  The new price plateau is painful, but it’s high enough for the alternatives to get a good foothold and shot at building for the next phase in fuel provisioning.


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