Single, Key Gene Discovery Could Streamline Production of Biofuels

The U.S. Department of Energy says its scientists have identified a gene in organisms that the department says could make ethanol production – particularly from grasses and plants, more efficient without the use of enzymes.

The discovery came at the DOE’s BioEnergy Science Center and is described as a possible “missing link” to more ethanol production.

The DOE said in a statement “the discovery of the gene controlling ethanol production in a microorganism known as “Clostridium thermocellum” will mean that scientists can now experiment with genetically altering biomass plants to produce more ethanol. Current methods to make ethanol from a type of biomass found in switchgrass and agricultural waste require the addition of expensive enzymes to break down the plant’s barriers that guard energy-rich sugars.”

Energy Secretary Steven Chu said “this discovery is an important step in developing biomass crops that could increase yield of ethanol, lower production costs and help reduce our reliance on imported oil.”

Read the DOE’s announcement here.

Iowa is trying to move beyond the corn-fed ethanol stage with plants that would use corn stalks, leaves and cobs. Poet is building a cellulosic ethanol plant adjacent to a corn-fed plant at Emmetsburg and Dupont and new subsidiary Danisco, a Danish maker of enzymes, plans a similar facility near Nevada.

Production of corn-fed ethanol is expected to reach 15 billion gallons next year, nearing the limits on federal mandates for corn-fed ethanol. Federal policy has aimed for 36 billion gallons of biofuel production by 2022, half of it coming from non-corn sources.

Despite ambitious targets, production of cellulosic ethanol has fallen short of goals.

The original target in 2005 legislation passed by congress was to produce about 100 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol by this year.

Instead, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last month reduced its expectations for biofuel production in 2012 to just 6.5 million gallons this year and 12.9 million gallons in 2012.

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