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Fast-growing trees

The creation of biofuels from trees involves a host of challenges, including but certainy not limited to the breakdown of lignin. So researchers have been approaching the problem from a variety of angles and here is the latest glancing blow for renewable energy production:

Researchers at the University of Georgia have discovered that manipulation of a specific gene in a hardwood tree species not only makes it easier to break down the wood into fuel, but also significantly increases tree growth.

In a paper published recently in Biotechnology for Biofuels, the researchers describe how decreasing the expression of a gene called GAUT12.1 leads to a reduction in xylan and pectin, two major components of plant cell walls that make them resistant to the enzymes and chemicals used to extract the fermentable sugars used to create biofuels.

"This research gives us important clues about the genes that control plant structures and how we can manipulate them to our advantage," said study co-author Debra Mohnen, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. "The difficulty of breaking down the complicated plant cell wall is a major obstacle to the cost-effective production of biofuels, and this discovery may pave the way for new techniques that make that process more economically viable."

If you follow the developments on biofuels, you could begin to think that the big breakthrough is going to come in the realm of fermentation, or relatedly the development of a new super enzyme. But then something like this comes along and you realize (again!) that it is going to take every single one of these new discoveries, not to mention all of them working in concert, to displace energy production somewhere beyond fossilized feedstocks. But it can happen. Thanks to Dr. Mohnen and her group for the reminder and congratulations on this major development.

Image: Debra Mohnen ( Paul Efland/UGA).

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