Government scientists have found the genes that increase the oil production in plant leaves, and that could increase the amount of biodiesel that can be squeezed out of plants. This news release from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory says finding a way to enhance that oil expression in those parts of the plant could have significant implications for biofuel production.
“If we can transfer this strategy to crop plants being used to generate renewable energy or to feed livestock, it would significantly increase their energy content and nutritional values,” said Brookhaven biochemist Changcheng Xu, who led the research. The experiments were carried out in large part by Xu’s group members Jilian Fan and Chengshi Yan.
Think about it in the familiar terms of calories: Oil is twice as energy-dense as carbohydrates, which make up the bulk of leaves, stems, and other vegetative plant matter. “If you want to cut calories from your diet, you cut fat and oils. Conversely, if you want to increase the caloric output of your biofuel or feed for livestock, you want more oil,” said Xu.
But plants don’t normally store much oil in their leaves and other vegetative tissues. In nature, oil storage is the job of seeds, where the energy-dense compounds provide nourishment for developing plant embryos. The idea behind Xu’s studies was to find a way to “reprogram” plants to store oil in their more abundant forms of biomass.
The biggest challenge for the researchers was finding the oil production genes in the vegetative part of the plant, where the oil isn’t normally stored. If this works out, scientists could find ways to transfer the technology to biomass-dedicated crops.