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Research makes it easier to convert plant biomass into biofuel

A way to increase fermentable sugar stores in plants which could lead to plants being easier to convert into biofuel, has bee found by researchers at the University of Cambridge.

Using the plant Arabidopsis, Dr Paul Dupree and his team have found three enzymes responsible for the production of all detectable levels of a type of sugar called glucomannan, according to the latest issue of Business, the quarterly highlights magazine of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

The biofuel research also shows that the quantity of glucomannan can be increased or decreased in the stem with no visible detrimental effects on plant development or cell wall strength. However, the researchers found that changes in glucomannan levels had a detrimental effect on seed development - something that could be benefitial to biofuel production.

Dr Dupree explains: "We now know that it may be possible to increase glucomannan specifically in harvestable plant organs, such as stems. This could be very beneficial for the production of bioenergy crops where higher proportions of enzyme-accessible fermentable sugars, such as those in glucomannan, could lead to higher yields of fuel. Achieving higher fuel yields from crops will increase the likelihood of sustainable and economic biofuels displacing fossil fuels."

The increases in fermentable sugar achieved so far are encouraging, but further work is needed to understand how to make substantial improvements in crop species, which could help to contribute to significantly increase the supply of biofuel.

Dr Dupree leads the Cell Wall Sugars Research Programme within the BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre. This work is featured in the Winter issue of Business and the findings were recently published in The Plant Journal.

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