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Genes discovery set to lead to better crops for bioenergy

UK researchers aim to breed crops which need less energy to produce biofuels

Researchers hope to breed crops which use less energy to produce biofuels
Researchers to breed crops with less energy-intensive process to produce biofuels

Biotechnology researchers have discovered a family of genes that could help breed grasses to improve properties for bioenergy.

The research was carried out by a team from the University of Cambridge and Rothamsted Research, which receives strategic funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Sustainable Bioenergy Centre (BSBEC).

The genes are important in the development of the fibrous, woody parts of grasses, like rice and wheat. The team hopes that by understanding how these genes work, they could breed varieties of crops, whose straw requires less energy-intensive processing in order to produce biofuels.

The majority of the energy stored in plants is contained within the woody parts, and billions of tonnes of this material are produced by global agriculture each year in growing cereals and other grass crops. But this energy is tightly locked away and hard to get at. This research could offer the possibility of multi-use crops where the grain could be used to produce energy efficiently.

Professor Paul Dupree, of the University of Cambridge, said: “Unlike starchy grains, the energy stored in the woody parts of plants is locked away and difficult to get at. Just as cows have to chew the cud and need a stomach with four compartments to extract enough energy from grass, we need to use energy-intensive mechanical and chemical processing to produce biofuels from straw.

"What we hope to do with this research is to produce varieties of plants where the woody parts yield their energy much more readily - but without compromising the structure of the plant. We think that one way to do this might be to modify the genes that are involved in the formation of a molecule called xylan - a crucial structural component of plants.”

Xylan is an important, highly-abundant component of the tough walls that surround plant cells. It holds the other molecules in place and so helps to make a plant robust and rigid. This rigidity is important for the plant, but locks in the energy needed to produce bioenergy efficiently.

Dr Rowan Mitchell of Rothamsted Research, said: “It would mean that there is scope to produce plant varieties that strike the right balance of being sturdy enough to grow and thrive, while also having other useful properties such as for biofuel production."

Duncan Eggar, BBSRC bioenergy champion added: “This research demonstrates how, by understanding the fundamental biology of plants, we can think about how to produce varieties of crops with useful traits, specifically for use as a source of energy.”