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Designer sugarcane, not switchgrass, being retooled to produce biofuels

Posted August 30, 2013
Designer sugarcane, not switchgrass, being retooled to produce biofuels

Designer sugarcane, not switchgrass, being retooled to produce biofuels
Dr. Jorge da Silva examines hundreds of micropropagated sugarcane plants in a bioreactor. Credit: Texas AgriLife Communications photo by Rod Santa Ana

Remember switchgrass? In his State of the Union address in 2006, President George W. Bush suggested scientists use switchgrass to produce an ecologically friendly fuel. Cellulosic ethanol, he called it, produced from natural materials.

Bush’s comments made the late-night comedy talk show circuit, but others took his comments very seriously, including a Texas A&M AgriLife Research scientist who had been working on such a project for years.

Today, Dr. Jorge da Silva predicts he will release such a product from his laboratory within two years.

But da Silva isn’t using switchgrass, opting instead for sugarcane, which he said better lends itself to being redesigned and reengineered to help fulfill Bush’s dream of “providing 30 percent of our transportation fuel by 2030.”

“Unlike corn, or even switchgrass, sugarcane is unique in that it can be crossed with different species, including sorghum, to create new plant varieties with favorable traits that are competitive with corn in producing biofuels,” he said.

Using genetic markers, da Silva transfers favorable genetic traits from a variety of plant sources to sugarcane to make new plant material called wide-hybridization.

These new plant varieties would make up the world’s second generation of bioenergy plants, with the potential to eventually replace corn and even sugarcane in the production of ethanol, da Silva said.

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