Corngrass: Youthful Plant May Quicken Biofuels
Research By Marcia Wood November 3, 2008
Corngrass, a little-known variation of your typical towering
cornstalk, might hold the key to fast, cheap, eco-friendly ways to squeeze more
ethanol from tomorrow's biofuel crops.
Agricultural Research Service
(ARS) scientists at the
of California-Berkeley Plant Gene Expression Center in Albany, Calif., are
investigating corngrass traits that might be moved into other plants, to make
them stand-out biofuel crops.
For example, corngrass has tender, youthful leaves that contain less
lignin, a component of plant-cell walls, than does the tougher foliage of
conventional corn plants.
That's a plus for corngrass, because the lignin, cellulose and
hemicellulose in cell walls present stumbling blocks for efficiently producing
what's known as cellulosic ethanol. These cell wall components aren't easily
degraded into the fermentable sugars from which ethanol is made.
Plant molecular geneticists
Chuck and Sarah
Hake at Albany, and co-investigators, reported in a 2007 issue of
Nature Genetics that what they refer to
as "the Corngrass gene" likely serves as a master control for seven or more
other genes that confer traits such as lignin levels.
Now, with funding from ARS, UC
Berkeley, and the U.S. Department of
Energy they're taking a closer look at these genes.
Collaborator Christian Tobias, a
plant molecular biologist with the
Western Regional Research Center in Albany, plans to shuttle the Corngrass
gene into switchgrass, the prairie grass regarded as one of America's most
promising bioenergy crops. Tobias wants to determine if the Corngrass gene can
boost switchgrass' value as a biofuel source.
more about the research in the November/December 2008 issue of Agricultural
ARS is a scientific research agency of the
U.S. Department of Agriculture.