Scientists at The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation have uncovered a gene responsible for controlling key growth characteristics in plants, specifically the density of plant material. Denser plants have more biomass without increasing the agricultural footprint, meaning farmers and ranchers can produce more plant material from the same sized field. Plants that have increased density hold great potential to be used to produce biofuels, electricity and even advanced materials, like carbon fiber.
A researcher has found a gene that controls the production of lignin in the central portions of the stems of Arabidopsis and Medicago truncatula, species commonly used as models for the study of plant genetic processes. Lignin is a compound that helps provide strength to plant cell walls, basically giving the plant the ability to stand upright. When the newly discovered gene is removed, there is a dramatic increase in the production of biomass, including lignin, throughout the stem.
Further research with collaborators at the University of Georgia revealed that removal of the gene also can increase the production of carbohydrate-rich cellulose and hemicellulose material in portions of the plant stem. These are the components of a plant that are converted to sugars to create advanced biofuels, such as cellulosic-derived ethanol or butanol. More celluloses and hemicelluloses mean more sugars to use for carbohydrate-based energy production.