Monday, August 19, 2013

Did you know: Scientists have found a gene which could increase efficient biofuel production

Ball-and-stick model
of cellulose Ibeta

Ben Mills
Biofuels are an increasingly attractive energy resource as the already limited availability of fossil fuels continues to dwindle. Biofuels are derived from the sugars of plants; and fast growing plants, such as poplar and eucalyptus trees and various grasses, represent the best source for these fuels. Within plants the cellulose of the cell walls is what needs to be accessed in order for biofuels to be produced. Cellulose is a long chain of smaller sugar molecules called glucose. Cellulose can be converted to this glucose and used in classic fermentation to produce alcohol.

There is, however, another component of the cell wall called lignin which essentially holds the cellulose together and gives firmness to the plant that allows for their upright stature. Lignin also, unfortunately; in the eyes of a biofuel producer; reduces the accessibility of the sugar in the cell wall, thus limiting biofuel production potential.

Now, a group of international scientists have identified a gene that is important for lignin production. Their results are reported in the Science Express article entitled: 'Caffeoyl Shikimate Esterase (CSE) Is an Enzyme in the Lignin Biosynthetic Pathway' The authors found that when CSE is non-functional 36% less lignin is produced and the remaining lignin had an altered structure. In the final analysis; conversion of cellulose to glucose was increased 4 fold in plants with mutated CSE.

The authors now hope to identify plants with mutated CSE or to embark on genetic engineering in order to have a stock of plants with non-functional CSE which can be employed in the production of biofuels.