Genetic Engineering Makes Biomass More Digestible

February
2018

Altering a key gene in some grasses makes their cell walls easier to break down for transformation into biofuels.

Suppressing the gene in the grass Setaria viridis increases the amount of glucose that can be enzymatically extracted from the plant’s biomass by between 40% and 60%. S. viridis is closely related to maize and sugarcane, both of which are already used for bioethanol. If the gene engineering works in those plants, it could make the first stages of bioethanol production cheaper and more efficient, says researcher Rowan Mitchell, a plant biologist at Rothamsted Research in the U.K.

Mitchell and his colleagues have long been looking for ways to make breaking down grass cell walls easier. The problem is that grasses’ cell walls are heavily feruloylated, that is, their polysaccharides are crosslinked to rigid, indigestible lignins. In 2007, the researchers identified ten genes that could be involved in this feruloylation, and they spent the past decade trying to make sense of them.

They found that each of the ten genes plays a different role, and in many species, suppressing one gene does not make much of an impact because the other genes have redundant functions. Studying...

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