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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

New Technology Will Enhance Biofuel Potential

(This post first appeared on Red Green and Blue.  For links to my other posts click here)

Today Chromatin, Inc. announced that it has successfully employed it's "mini-chromosome" technology in sugarcane as a part of it's collaboration with Switzerland head-quartered Syngenta.  What this technology allows is the simultaneous addition of several genes, something that is difficult or impossible to to with standard genetic engineering methods.  This is particularly important for a crop like sugarcane that is vegetatively propagated (not grown from seed).  To move traits into multiple varieties of such a crop would be prohibitively expensive under current regulatory limitations.

How It Works

Chromatin uses the DNA of the host plant to make an additional chromosome that has all that is needed for it to be replicated along with all the other chromosomes.  Starting with that basic structure, the new chromosome can carry several new genes.  The new chromosome is stable in the plant and there is no "random insertion" into the host genome as with a standard GMO crop.

Why Sugarcane?

Sugarcane is already far and away the most efficient biofuel crop, but this technology could be used to further enhance that advantage.  With both energy prices and global food prices rising, this crop becomes a very logical candidate for alternative energy with minimum food impact.

An Option For Other Vegetatively Propagated Crops?

Many important food crops are also vegetatively propagated (technically speaking, "cloned.").  These include potatoes, cassava, garlic and all fruits.  For most of those crops it has never made economic sense to invest in genetic engineering.  The Chromatin technology has the potential to change that depending on the regulatory environment.  For instance, there are genes in wild versions of cultivated potatoes or grapes that could be moved into the desirable, commercial varieties of those same species to address major disease problems for those crops.
It will take many years for all of this to play out from a technical and regulatory perspective, but today's announcement is definitely a key milestone.  There will be plenty of time to discuss and study the ramifications of this technology before it goes to a commercial scale.
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Sugarcane image from Rufino Uribe via Wikimedia Commons