Imagine being able to precisely control specific tissues of a plant to enhance desired traits without affecting the plant’s overall function.
Thus a rubber tree could be manipulated to produce more natural latex. Trees grown for wood could be made with higher lignin content, making for stronger yet lighter-weight lumber. Crops could be altered so that only the leaves and certain other tissues had more wax, thus enhancing the plant’s drought tolerance, while its roots and other functions were unaffected.
By manipulating a plant’s metabolic pathways, two scientists at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), Henrik Scheller and Dominique Loqué, have figured out a way to genetically rewire plants to allow for an exceptionally high level of control over the spatial pattern of gene expression, while at the same time boosting expression to very high levels. Now they have launched a startup company called Afingen to apply this technology for developing low-cost biofuels that could be cost-competitive with gasoline and corn ethanol.
“With this tool we seem to have found a way to control very specifically what tissue or cell type expresses whatever we want to express,” said Scheller. “It’s a new way that people haven’t thought about to increase metabolic pathways. It could be for making more cell wall, for increasing the stress tolerance response in a specific tissue. We think there are many different applications.”
Afingen was awarded a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant earlier this year for $1.72 million to engineer switchgrass plants that will contain 20 percent more fermentable sugar and 40 percent less lignin in selected structures. The grant was provided under a new SBIR program at DOE that combines an SBIR grant with an option to license a specific technology produced at a national laboratory or university through DOE-supported research.
“Techno-economic modeling done at (the Joint BioEnergy Institute, or JBEI) has shown that you would get a 23 percent reduction in the price of the biofuel with just a 20 percent reduction in lignin,” said Loqué. “If we could also increase the sugar content and make it easier to extract, that would reduce the price even further. But of course it also depends on the downstream efficiency.”
The Latest on: Artificial positive feedback loop
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