Making Biofuel Plants Productive

Monday, March 16, 2015 @ 05:03 PM gHale

When it comes to advancing the future of biofuels, new plants will have to deliver better productivity so they can serve as feedstock for fuels.

Proteomics to the rescue.

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Proteomics is the large-scale study of proteins, particularly their structures and functions. By using advanced proteomic techniques, Benjamin Schwessinger, a grass geneticist with the Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) Feedstocks Division, was able to identify 1,750 unique proteins in shoots of switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), a North American native prairie grass widely viewed as one of the most promising of all the fuel crop candidates.

“This was a pilot study to actually test if these proteomic tools are applicable to switchgrass,” said Schwessinger. “That we were able to identify such a large number of proteins in our samples shows that proteomics will be useful when we start digging for proteins that will enable us to manipulate switchgrass for increased biofuel production.”

The results of this study are in a paper entitled “Proteome profile of the endomembrane of developing coleoptiles from switchgrass (Panicum virgatum).”

Burning of fossil fuels is responsible for the release of nearly 9 billion metric tons of excess carbon into the atmosphere each year. Fuels made from the sugars in plants and other forms of biomass would provide a clean, green and renewable alternative if the production of biofuels is cost-effective. This will require, among other developments, plants whose sugars end up readily extracted and fermented into fuels by microbes.

“Plant cell walls or biomass are costly to deconstruct for sugar release for downstream applications such as biofuels, but genetic modifications to plant cell wall structure could result in significant downstream economic impacts,” Schwessinger said.

To this end, Schwessinger and his colleagues carried out the first proteomic analysis of switchgrass material, profiling the proteome of the switchgrass endomembrane from 10-day old dark grown shoots.

“The overall number of unique proteins we identified highlights the contributions proteomics can provide as more plant genomes become publicly accessible,” Schwessinger said. “You can think of it as a tool that helps us find needles in a haystack. For example, with proteomics we can determine the four highest expressed members out of a protein family of 60.”

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