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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Genetically-Engineered Trees Can Dissolve Themselves into Fuel

Worried about all the energy that's required to break poplar trees down into usable fuel? Never fear: We'll just stick some fungus genes into that poplar so that the tree can rapidly ferment itself as soon as it's chopped down. A self-fermenting tree can practically turn itself into fuel. That's exactly the kind of gene-hacking being proposed by geneticists at the Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute in California. Eddy Rubin, director of the Institute, has just published a paper in Nature about how trees can be genetically-engineered to be biofuel-ready.

Says Rubin:

With the data that we are generating from plant genomes we can home in on relevant agronomic traits such as rapid growth, drought resistance, and pest tolerance, as well as those that define the basic building blocks of the plants cell wall—cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. Biofuels researchers are able to take this information and design strategies to optimize the plants themselves as biofuels feedstocks—altering, for example, branching habit, stem thickness, and cell wall chemistry resulting in plants that are less rigid and more easily broken down

Rubin recommends the Clostridia species of fungus could be spliced into trees to make them self-fermenting. In the past, he has suggested splicing termite gut genes into trees so that they would essentially digest themselves and make biofuel processing easier.

I can't wait for a self-digesting apple so that I don't have to squash the things up to make my applesauce. I wouldn't mind eating a little bit of termite genome for that.

Genomics of Plant-Based Biofuels [via DOE JGI]