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Eternal youth: A fix for biofuels

George Chuck

Switch grass with a corn gene that locks plants in a state of eternal youth pack on more starch that can be easily convereted to biofuels, according to new research. In this image, the transformants are on the left, normal on the right.

The push to wean the biofuel industry off its heavy diet of corn may, ironically, involve transferring a corn gene to non-corn plants such as switch grass, suggests a new study.

The gene, called Corngrass 1, essentially locks the switch grass into a state of perpetual pre-adolescence, explained George Chuck, a plant molecular geneticist at the University of California at Berkeley.

"One of the consequences of staying juvenile forever is they don't flower, they don't become sexually mature," he said. 

Instead of burning energy to reproduce, the plants build up starches that are easily degraded into sugars that are fermented to biofuel.

The plants with the gene, Chuck and his colleagues report this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, stored as much as 250 percent more starch in their stems than plants without it.

The breakthrough, the researchers note, could make the production of cellulosic ethanol easier and cheaper than current methods.

In addition, since flowering is prevented with this gene, the risk is reduced that the transgenic plants will contaminate wild plants, one of the concerns about genetically modified crops.

Cellulosic breakthrough?
Researchers are struggling to overcome the expensive pre-treatment process used in the production of cellulosic ethanol, which requires a lot of heat and caustic chemicals, noted Chuck.

"All the treatment just raises the cost of processing the biomass," he said. "Whereas we showed that you can skip the pretreatment if you use our biomass with a lot of starch in it."

In their process, researchers add an enzyme called alpha amylase to degrade the starch to sugars as well as enzymes that break down cell walls, but skip the expensive pre-treatment process entirely.

In theory, this could make cellulosic ethanol more affordable.

Earlier this month, an independent panel appointed by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the government was unlikely to meet a target of producing 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuel a year largely because the technology to produce the fuel cheaply doesn't exist.

Chuck called his team's approach "a first step" in the direction of reaching that goal, though he doesn't know if it can be improved upon and scaled up in time to reach the target.

Nevertheless, he said, the research does show a somewhat ironic way to move away from using corn in producing biofuels, which competes with food for livestock and people.

"From the whole food-vs.-fuel debate, I think the answer may be putting aspects of the food into your biofuel," Chuck said. "Things like starch, building up starch in your biofuel cropland."

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John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com.