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Corn+Soybean Digest

Corn genetics may lead to next generation of plant-based biofuels

Identifying the corn genes involved with plant cell-wall generation and learning their function will help develop new, more productive sources of transportation biofuel, according to Nick Carpita and Maureen McCann, Purdue University researchers.

The two will study genes involved in the formation of cell walls in the group of plants known as grasses, which includes corn. The goal is to find ways to produce more biomass containing more sugars that can be efficiently processed into biofuel.

"The close evolutionary and genomic relationships of maize or corn to other grasses will take us one step closer to some new, good sources of bioenergy," says Carpita, a geneticist in the department of botany and plant pathology. "Maize cell walls and the genes responsible for wall formation are characteristic of all grasses."

The research team will analyze the genes in both maize and switchgrass. Switchgrass is another plant investigated for biofuel production, but it also needs modification to increase yields.

Researchers already know that most plants use about 10% of their entire genome for cell-wall construction, but very little is known about the specific functions of those genes.

"Maize has the same genes arranged in the same order and on the same chromosomes as the other grasses," says McCann, an associate professor of biological science. "We'll switch genes on and off as we identify them to see what they do. Once we know the genes and their functions, then we can assess which ones might make good targets for modification for enhanced biomass and sugars for processing into biofuel."

In the U.S., ethanol is mainly made from corn because starch in the kernels is easily converted to sugar for fermentation to the alternative fuel. Scientists are studying ways to more easily produce fuel from plant biomass, which is composed of cell walls.

Identifying and classifying the genes for cell-wall building and regulation in maize also will help determine how grasses grow and develop.

A U.S. Department of Energy/USDA research program to accelerate development of biofuels from plants funds Carpita and McCann's genomic plant cell-wall construction study with a $1.2 million grant.

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