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Researchers convert sugarcane to a cold-tolerant, more photosynthetically efficient, oil-producing crop

A multi-institutional team led by researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reports that it can increase sugarcane’s geographic range, boost its photosynthetic rate by 30% and turn it into an oil-producing crop for biodiesel production. These are the first steps in a larger research initiative—supported by $3.2 million from the Department of Energy—to convert sugarcane and sorghum, two of the most productive crop plants known, into even more productive, oil-generating plants.

The team will present its latest findings on Tuesday at the US Department of Energy’s ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit in Washington, D.C.

Researchers are engineering sugarcane into a more productive, oil-producing plant that can grow in cooler climes. If their work proceeds as expected, growers will be able to meet 147% of the US mandate for renewable fuels with the modified sugarcane, the team reports. This crop could grow on abandoned land in the southeastern United States (about 20% of the green zone on the map). Credit: Stephen Long

Working first with the laboratory-friendly plant Arabidopsis and later with sugarcane, the team introduced genes that boost natural oil production in the plant. They increased oil production in sugarcane stems to about 1.5%.

At 1.5 percent, a sugarcane field in Florida would produce about 50 percent more oil per acre than a soybean . There’s enough oil to make it worth harvesting.

—Stephen P. Long, U of I professor of plant biology and project leader

The team hopes to increase the oil content of sugarcane stems to about 20%, he said.

Using genetic engineering, the researchers increased photosynthetic efficiency in sugarcane and sorghum by 30%, Long said. And to boost cold tolerance, researchers are crossing sugarcane with Miscanthus, a related perennial grass that can grow as far north as Canada. The new hybrid is more cold-tolerant than sugarcane, but further crosses are needed to restore the other attributes of sugarcane while preserving its cold-tolerance, Long said.

Ultimately, the team hopes to integrate all of these new attributes into sugarcane.

The research team includes scientists from Brookhaven National Laboratory, the University of Florida and the University of Nebraska. Long is an affiliate of the Institute for Genomic Biology at the U of I.



A cold-tolerant, oil-saturated cane plant will be one hell of a flammable weed.


Don't mess with the oil, just make it grow here, sugarcane ethanol is MUCH more efficient than using corn grain. Once you crush the cane, gasify the stalks and synthesize even more fuel.

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