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Turning the leaf into a biodiesel factory

The most productive biomass crops are fast-growing trees and grasses, which store carbon in their leaves and stems as lignocellulose. This material is hard to convert into liquid biofuel because it is extremely resistant to degradation. In contrast, vegetable oils from seeds can easily be made into biodiesel. This has led some scientists to suggest that biomass crops should be made to store carbon as oil. Radical reprogramming of cell metabolism is required to achieve this goal because oil is normally only present in trace amounts in plant vegetative tissues.

Scientists at Rothamsted Research have used synthetic biology principles and techniques to identify a combination of genes that increases the oil content of vegetative tissues by at least 400-fold in the model plant Arabidopsis. A key to achieving such high levels of oil is the discovery that oil breakdown severely limits oil accumulation in these tissues and can be switched off by removing a single gene called SUGAR-DEPENDENT1. The study is published in the journal Plant Physiology and was supported by strategic funding from the BBSRC.

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