Science

Agricultural discovery could mean more biomass from the same sized field

Lignin (blue) in a regular Arabidopsis stem at left, and in a modified plant's stem at right (Image: Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation)
Lignin (blue) in a regular Arabidopsis stem at left, and in a modified plant's stem at right (Image: Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation)
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Lignin (blue) in a regular Arabidopsis stem at left, and in a modified plant's stem at right (Image: Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation)
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Lignin (blue) in a regular Arabidopsis stem at left, and in a modified plant's stem at right (Image: Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation)

Biofuel derived from crops such as switchgrass certainly holds promise, although some critics maintain that such crops use up too much agricultural land – land that could otherwise be used for growing food crops. A genetic discovery announced this Tuesday, however, reportedly allows individual plants to produce more biomass. This means that biofuel crops could have higher yields, without increasing their agricultural footprint.

The research was conducted at the Plant Biology Division of Oklahoma’s Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation. There, Dr. Huanzhong Wang discovered a gene that controls the production of lignin within the stems of Arabidopsis and Medicago truncatula, plants that are commonly used in genetic studies. Lignin is a compound that adds strength to plant cell walls, which gives stems their rigidity. When Wang removed the gene, there was a marked increase in the production of lignin and other biomass throughout the plants’ stems.

"In switchgrass, as the plant matures, the stem becomes hollow like bamboo," said division director Richard Dixon. "Imagine if you use this discovery to fill that hollow portion with lignin. The potential increase in biomass in these new plants could be dramatic. This technology could make plants better suited to serve as renewable energy sources or as renewable feedstocks to produce advanced composite materials that consumers depend on every day."

Further research with associates at the University of Georgia revealed that by removing the gene, production of cellulose and hemicellulose material in the stem was also increased. These carbohydrate-rich compounds, when converted to sugars, are used to create advanced biofuels like cellulosic-derived ethanol or butanol.

Ironically, most genetic research regarding lignin has involved trying to lessen its production, in order to make grazing crops more palatable for livestock.

The findings were recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

8 comments
Caimbeul
Folks who whine that unused land that potentially could be used for food crops - shouldn\'t be used for biomass crops like switchgrass - are about the best contemporary example of sophistry in action this side of the Borgias.
Michael Mantion
awersome.. good work
Anumakonda Jagadeesh
Excellent. This way Biomass plants have sufficient inoput. Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
Gadgeteer
\"Biofuel derived from crops such as switchgrass certainly holds promise, although some critics maintain that such crops use up too much agricultural land %u2013 land that could otherwise be used for growing food crops.\" Who are these critics? Switchgrass can grow in poor quality soils that will not support food crops and/or which will erode badly under such crops. There\'s very little competition.
Jonathan Cole
While I think that biofuels definitely are part of the renewables picture that must be optimized, it is not too wise to be reckless in implementation. Switchgrass is among a family of giant grasses that are pernicious invasives. That is, they will grow anywhere and it is difficult to keep them in check. Here in Hawaii we have a variety known here as elephant grass. The trouble is it is very difficult to eradicate, even with herbicides because of the density of the root mass. Since it spreads rapidly by seeds, roots and cuttings, this grass quickly smothers other plants. One must reckon with the costs of \"beating back the jungle\" as a part of the evaluation of a plant\'s usefulness as a biofuel crop. Otherwise we just end up with a different kind of problem. That is not progress.
DaveWesely
J Cole made a good point. However, the last place you would grow switchgrass would be on land such as in Hawaii. It is meant for arid land that typical row crops cannot be grown. The idea is to convert land that is used at the most for pastureland, so that we don\'t use so much corn for ethanol. On the issue of invasiveness, if a plant uses more of its resources in the production of lignin, it probably won\'t have as much energy or vigor to invade surrounding areas. A different issue on this new plant would be its harvest ability. Switchgrass is already difficult to cut, wearing out sickle blades unusually fast.
windykites
I have just done a search for Elephant grass, and found it is being grown in England for use as a biofuel and also burnt to provide electricity. It grows on poor land, so it seems to have great potential. Check it out. It grows to 3 metres tall (hence the name)
Bobthefish
Woud\'ntis deplete the soil faster than normal, though? The extra mass has to be grown somewhere, and the only resource that the plant has is the nutriment in the soil. It would be more useful for a while, but them grow poorly when the soil was wrecked.
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