Scientists hail new lignin biofuel breakthrough

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Scientists have made a breakthrough which could make it easier to produce biofuels from a variety of non-food plants as well as trees, cereal straw and grass.

Teams at Dundee University, Invergowrie’s James Hutton Institute, Belgium’s Ghent University and institutions in the US have discovered a new variation of lignin which paves the way for new plant varieties to be potentially bred and from which the sugars needed to create biofuel can be extracted without resorting to significant amounts of heat, energy and chemicals.

It also potentially resolves the issue of grains and oilseeds being used to create green fuels and forcing up food prices through the extra demand that biofuel creates.

The breakthrough on the lignin gene has been made in a plant called arabidopsis.

Professor Claire Halpin likened lignin to the concrete in a reinforced structure, where the cellulose needed to make biofuel is in the steel rods running through it.

Lignin makes it difficult to extract the cellulose, or sugars, as it totally surrounds them. But the new gene variation allows easier access to the cellulose.

Prof Halpin added: “This finding was quite unexpected because the lignin pathway has been widely examined and, it had been thought for the past decade or so, completely mapped.

“However, we have now uncovered this enzyme which represents a new step on the pathway and a very important one. It looks like it could be very useful in trying to manipulate plant biomass to generate biofuels and other chemicals from non-food crops.

“Our studies showed that in the plant we studied – arabidopsis – those with mutated CSE (lignin) were able to release around four times as much more cellulose. When growth differences for the plants are factored in, this amounts to around three times as much biomass from each plant.”

Prof Halpin said the new gene was likely to be found in other plants which would allow conventional breeding programmes to multiply up suitable varieties. GM could also play a role, although she conceded public opinion was against that.

But she said it would be for commercial companies to take forward any type of breeding in the wake of the discovery.