U of Guelph Discovers Key to Increasing Biomass

Joanna Schroeder

University of Guelph researchers may have found the key to increasing food and fuel (#Biofuel) production. By modifying a plant’s genetic profile, researchers doubled the plant’s growth and increased seed production by more than 400 percent. The findings were published in the March 2016 issue of Plant Biotechnology Journal.

The wild plant is on the left and the transgenic plant on the right.

The wild plant is on the left and the transgenic plant on the right.

Using Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant that has similar characteristics to some common farm crops, researchers found that by inserting a specific corn enzyme into the plant caused its rate to skyrocket.

“Even if the effects in a field-grown crop were less, such as only a tenth of what we’ve seen in the lab, that would still represent an increase in yield of 40 to 50 percent, compared with the average one to two percent a year that most breeding programs deliver,” said Prof. Michael Emes, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB).

Ems says the discovery is important because it could boost yields of oilseed crops such as canola, camelina and soybeans, crops grown for producing biofuels as well as co-products some as animal feed. In addition Ems says larger plants would capture more atmospheric carbon dioxide without increasing the amount of farmland a benefit for efforts to reduce CO2 emissions.

“Farmers and consumers would benefit significantly in terms of food production, green energy and the environment. The ramifications are enormous,” Emes said.

Interestingly, the discovery was nearly by chance.

While studying the enzyme’s effect on starch, researchers noted that their genetically engineered plants looked different and much larger in photos taken by lead author Fushan Liu, a former post-doctoral MCB researcher.

“That’s when we realized that we were looking at something potentially much more important,” said Ian Tetlow, an MCB professor and study co-author.

Although genetic engineering led to more flowers and pods containing seeds, it left the seed composition unchanged. “The seeds are where we would get the oil from, and consistent composition is important so that the function and use of the oil isn’t changed,” said Tetlow.

The researchers plan to test canola and other crops and field tests and analysis with industry and government will likely take several years. “This could have enormous implications for agriculture, carbon capture, food production, animal feedstocks and biodiesel. Emes added, “These findings are without parallel, and we came to them almost by accident. The reason we started the work was to test some ideas in basic science. It just goes to show that you never know where that science will take you.”

advance biofuels, Biodiesel, feedstocks, Research