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Sweet Success For Sustainable Biofuel Research


Scientists have found a way to increase fermentable sugar stores in plants which
could lead to plant biomass being easier to convert into eco-friendly
sustainable biofuels. Their research is highlighted in the latest issue of
Business, the quarterly highlights magazine of the Biotechnology and Biological
Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Energy is released in a usable form from biomass when biodegradable matter such
as wood or straw is burnt or fermented. Fuel for use in cars is produced by
fermentation. To make the fermentation process more efficient and to maximise
energy conversion a better understanding of the release of sugars from plant
cell walls is crucial and researchers from the University of Cambridge are doing
just that.

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. Their 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.

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. If the biomass plant material is sourced sustainably, from non-food
crops and waste, then this research could help to contribute to significantly
increasing the supply of eco-friendly biofuels.

Commenting on the research, BBSRC Chief Executive Professor Doug Kell, said:
“Sustainability issues, environmental factors and economic pressures all mean
there is an urgent need to find renewable energy sources. Plant-based biomass
from non-food crops and waste offers an effective alternative, but to make the
process more efficient, we need to examine ways of optimising the plant matter
we use to produce fuels. Research such as that being conducted by the BBSRC
Sustainable Bioenergy Centre is harnessing the power of fundamental plant
science to develop realistic alternatives to oil-based transport fuels that do
not threaten the food chain or the environment.”

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.

This research features in the Winter 2010 issue of Business, BBSRC’s research
highlights magazine.

To read the full article, visit:

For more information about the BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre, visit:

The full research paper was published in The Plant Journal:
Goubet F, Barton CJ, Mortimer JC, Yu X, Zhang Z, Miles GP, Richens J, Liepman
AH, Seffen K, Dupree P. (2009) Cell wall glucomannan in Arabidopsis is
synthesised by CSLA glycosyltransferases, and influences the progression of
embryogenesis. Plant J.60(3):527-38


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK
funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC
annually invests around 450 million in a wide range of research that makes a
significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a
number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food,
chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. BBSRC carries out its mission
by funding internationally competitive research, providing training in the
biosciences, fostering opportunities for knowledge transfer and innovation and
promoting interaction with the public and other stakeholders on issues of
scientific interest in universities, centres and institutes.

The Babraham Institute, Institute for Animal Health, Institute of Food Research,
John Innes Centre and Rothamsted Research are Institutes of BBSRC. The
Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist
facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments
and other end-users of their research.

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