Robot, Yeast Combo May Mean More Ethanol
Suszkiw April 19, 2007
Scientists with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Peoria, Ill., are excited about the
latest member to join their team: a one-armed robot. They expect it to speed
studies aimed at harnessing the power of proteins for industrial uses, such as
making fuel ethanol from fibrous corn stover.
The robot is the centerpiece of an automated system called the
"plasmid-based functional proteomics work cell." According to
Hughes, a molecular biologist with the ARS
Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, the system is the
first of its kind to fully automate several procedures that have traditionally
been carried out by handhuman hand, that is.
A short list of functions includes extracting genetic material from
the cells of plants, microbes and other organisms; making DNA copies of genes;
inserting the copies into Escherichia coli; culturing these bacteria so
that the copies can be sequenced and their proteins identified; and inserting
desirable genes into yeasts used to make ethanol.
Thanks to the fast, precise movements of its mechanized arm, the
robotic system can carry out such tasks hundredsor even thousandsof
times faster than a human could, notes Hughes. He and colleagues at the ARS
and Biocatalysis Research Unit codeveloped the system with a team from
Hudson Control Group of
Springfield, N.J., starting in 2004.
Of particular interest is using the robotic system to genetically
modify new strains of Saccharomyces yeast that can metabolize sugars
locked up within corn fibersomething these microbial workhorses have so
far failed to do.
Currently, only the starch from corn and other grain crops is being
converted commercially into the sugars from which ethanol is derived. With the
Saccharomyces yeasts now used, this equates to nearly three gallons of
ethanol from a bushel of corn. Using new strains capable of breaking down corn
fiber could potentially squeeze 10 percent more ethanol from the grain, Hughes
and colleagues estimate.
about this and other ARS bioenergy research in the April 2007 issue of
Agricultural Research magazine.
ARS is the U.S. Department of
Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.