A plant just for biofuel production? Purdue seeks it

by Eric Weddle, Lafayette Journal & Courier

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clint chappleA Purdue University team has received a $5.2 million grant to develop a new type of plant that could be used to create biofuels directly.

Their aim is to force a molecule in the plant that creates an useable biomass to instead create phenylethanol, a combustible biofuel. Clint Chapple, distinguished professor of biochemistry and leader of the research, said a biofuel that could then be blended with gasoline could be produced much more easily.

The U.S. Department of Energy is funding the five-year project. Chapple said so far in biofuel production, the focus has been getting sugars out of cell walls and using microorganisms to ferment those sugars into fuel. The new method would alter a plant’s metabolic pathways and could lead to making biofuel directly.

Chapple and his team wants to stop the production of tough organic fibers called lignin — which can make up about 25 percent of a plant’s biomass —basically by re-engineering the plant’s amino acid phenylalanine, which makes the lignin, to create phenylethanol.

The team includes Natalia Dudareva, a distinguished professor of horticulture, and John Morgan, an associate professor of chemical engineering. Dudareva will be finding how to increase phenylalanine. Morgan will create mathematical models on how to change phenylalanine’s path so it creates phenylethanol.

The J&C spoke recently with Chapple about the research.

Question: What does it mean to develop a new plant? Would this be a genetically modified version of, say, switchgrass or algae, or something totally new?

Answer: Our initial experiments will be with so-called “model” plants in the laboratory, but we hope that if all goes well, in the near future we will be able to translate some of our findings into plants that would be good candidates for biofuel crops, including switchgrass, miscanthus or poplar. Our plan is to reroute metabolism in these plants. This is a case where the use of genetic modification of the plants would be required to reach our goals.

Q: Are you confident the goal of creating this plant is possible?

A: We have a five-year plan to test our hypotheses concerning the extent that we can reroute metabolism and make potential biofuel molecules in plants.

Are we confident? Well, in order to obtain this grant, we had to outline our plan to fellow scientists and tell them why previous scientific findings led us to believe that our plan would be successful. They found our arguments convincing. In addition, there are many subgoals within our research plan. Even if not everything turns out as planned, we are confident we will learn a great deal.

Q: Would this new plant be used completely for biofuel production, or would there be remnants cast away or available for other uses?

A: Ideally, we would be adding value to existing crops. We hope to make biofuel compounds that the plant would store in its sap and which we could easily extract. Once that had been done, the remaining biomass could then be processed to make other biofuels like ethanol.

Q: What are the pitfalls for plant development if it is no longer making lignin?

A: Great question. Lignin is important to strengthen plant cells and the plant body in general. Plants that are low in lignin are sometimes quite sick, but other research in our labs now suggests that we can get around that problem.

We now have data that suggests we can modify lignin and still have viable, healthy plants. If we can combine these technologies, we might be able to make low lignin plants that also make new biofuel molecules directly.

Q: Are there plants that already use its phenylalanine to create phenylethanol?

A: Yes, it’s one of the compounds that give roses and other flowers their characteristic scents. Wouldn’t that be nice to fill your gas tank with?

Q: Will this research look at how this new plant could be grown, how much land use would be needed? Would producers growing corn for biofuel switch to this new crop?

A: Not yet. We need to first determine whether this is a feasible approach. If it is, and if we can add this production process to plants that would be grown for biofuel, we are imagining that we would actually get more total fuel per acre with crops engineered in this way.