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How to Optimize Biofuel Production Through Plant Genetics and Alternative Ingredients

September 7, 2016

Editor’s Note: AusBiotech is, as the name suggests, Australia’s biotechnology industry organization. For 30 years the organization has represented and promoted over 3k members in the life sciences, including therapeutics, medical technology, food technology and agricultural, environmental and industrial sectors. In recent months it has put specific focus on food and agriculture, hosting its first food and ag event last month, which Cal Foulner wrote about for us. Ahead of International BioFest2016 in October, during which AusBiotech is holding its own annual event, the organization gives us a snapshot of how some of its members and partners are innovating in the biofuel space.

The creation of sustainable and clean sources of energy is sorely needed to minimize humankind’s footprint and preserve the earth’s future. Fossil fuel reserves are running low, greenhouse gasses are polluting the atmosphere, and energy needs across the world are mushrooming as industrial and consumer demands increase.

Biofuels, made from materials such as plant and animal matter, promise to address this environmental calamity. They offer a renewable alternative to existing, non-renewable energy sources such as fossil fuels. To ensure their usage is a viable option, researchers are investigating ways to optimize these feedstocks for the production of biofuel.

The potential of plant oils

Plant oils offer great potential to provide much-needed renewable replacements for petroleum-derived fuels and chemicals, due to their natural abundance. To harness this potential, plant oils must be engineered to ensure their structure is appropriate, and that they can be readily processed into liquid fuels (such as biodiesel or aviation fuel).

Dr. Allan Green, the innovation leader for Bio-Based Products at CSIRO Agriculture & Food, says CSIRO has recently developed technology to engineer specific types of plant oils at very high levels in the leaves of crop plants, which could provide a scalable, low-cost source of the oil.

The technology involves a genetic engineering approach that mimics the natural process carried out by seeds. Oil synthesis genes are expressed in the leaves of the plants to encourage a higher accumulation of oil, resulting in a 35 percent increase of accumulation.

“This technology is game-changing in massively expanding the global production capacity of plant oils and significantly lowering their cost. The technology can be used to develop multipurpose food, feed, and fuel crop systems, where oil is produced in the plant’s leaves in addition to the main food or feed grain. This would intensify production and help ensure renewable oil feedstocks are produced at a price that is highly competitive with petroleum, an essential requirement for commercial success,” says Dr. Green.

“We are no longer limited to producing oil from oilseeds – the leaves of any crop plant can potentially be made into oil and fuel factories, while still producing their normal grain products for food and feed,” says Dr Green.

Dr. Green will present CSIRO’s research at 17th International Biotechnology Symposium (IBS 2016), which will be held from 24-27 October 2016 in Melbourne.

Next-generation bioethanol

There is a strong potential for bioethanol to be used as an alternative source of energy to fossil fuel. It is environmentally-friendly and can be produced from renewable carbohydrate-based feedstocks, such as corn stover and rice straw.

Bioethanol is a type of biofuel created from biomass, which is organic matter that has been derived from living or recently living organisms. It can be used as a source of fuel for vehicles when it is blended with gasoline, with benefits including lower emissions, increased vehicle power, and cost-savings. In a time when oil prices are on the rise, the use of bioethanol as a fuel source is clearly advantageous.

To ensure the usage of bioethanol is viable, researchers are investigating how the functionality of the biofuel could be optimized with alternative ingredients. Shanghai Jiao Tong University PhD candidate Juan Xia has trialed an alternative bacterium called Zymomonas mobilis, which promises to increase the production of ethanol and may have increased tolerance to environmental stresses. In particular, her research focuses on the flocculation in Zymomonas mobilis, a process by which fine particulates bunch together in a “floc”. The resultant group of particles is easier to filter, greatly assisting the separation of product and culture.

“Even though Zymomonas mobilis was discovered nearly 90 years ago, we are only just beginning to realize its full potential. It has numerous advantages, including exceeding between three and five times higher ethanol productivity and requires a lower biomass production,” says Miss Xia.

Overcoming the stress of industrial fermentation

Yeast has a long history in the production of food and drink, used in staple products such as bread, wine, and cheese. With today’s yeast manufacturing industry a multibillion dollar business, researchers are working to expand the applications of this versatile cell, investigating how it can be optimized for commercial production.

Researchers optimize yeast cells through a special type of engineering called recombinant DNA technology, which is used to enhance desirable traits in the cell. However, this process is problematic, as it can have unintended, negative consequences. For example, industrial fermentation is a stressful process, muddling with the cell’s metabolism and homeostasis, and can actually decrease the accumulation of the desired product.

Researchers from the University of Milano-Bicocca in Italy, led by Professor Danilo Porro, are designing more robust and stable strains, which can survive these stressors.

With both natural and engineered cell factories used in commercial production, this research has important implications for large-scale production and the improving the ability to produce efficiently.

Traveling to Australia this October, Prof Porro will present Molecular and process design for chemical productions in yeasts cell factories at IBS 2016.

Ausbiotech events

IBS 2016 will be hosted by AusBiotech and held as part of the International BioFest 2016, which promises to be the largest-ever gathering of life sciences in Australia. It will be held alongside AusBiotech 2016 and Australia Biotech Invest. Companies seeking investment in agritech or agricultural biotechnology are encouraged to participate and present their business case to potential investors at the showcase. For more information, contact AusBiotech.

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