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‘Fat plant’ gene discovery promises to boost biomass production

Greenwise Staff
10th February 2010
‘Fat’ genes in plants, such as trees, could play an important role in meeting the UK and other nations’ renewable energy targets, it has emerged.
Scientists in Manchester have discovered the two genes that make plants grow outwards and are now turning their research to find ways to make plants grow thicker more quickly, which could lead to increased biomass production without competing with food crops.

Scientists at the University of Manchester are conducting the research. Professor Simon Turner, one of the researchers on the project, said “Now we know what genes are dictating the growth process, we can develop a system of increasing growth so that it is orientated to produce more wood – increasing the essential biomass needed for our future.”

The UK plans to generate 15 per cent of the UK’s renewable energy from biomass by 2020, while the US has set the ambitious goal of generating a third of all liquid fuel from renewable source by the year 2025.

“Estimates suggest to reach its goal [the US] would need one billion tonnes of biomass, which is a lot,” said Professor Turner. According to Turner, the findings provide an “added benefit” for the biomass sector because it will mean biofuel crops will not be competing with food crops for land.

“There are concerns that the growing of biofuel products competes with essential food production. However, the part of the plant we have studied is the stalk – not the grain – so there will be no competition with food production,’ he said.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council-funded study, which is published in Development today, looked at the plant Arabidopsis, which does not look like a tree but has a similar vascular system (which carries water and sugar around the plant). It investigated growth in the vascular bundles and found that the genes PXY and CLE41 directed the amount and direction of cell division. It also discovered “over-expression” of CLE41 caused a greater amount of growth “in a well-ordered fashion”, thus increasing wood production.

The team is now growing poplar trees in the laboratory to see if they fit the Arabidopsis model. They will use these results to develop a system of increasing wood production.

The BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences, and annually invests around £450 million in a wide range of research that supports a number of industries, including agriculture, food and chemical sectors.

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‘Fat plant’ gene discovery promises to boost biomass production
New research has discovered the genes that make trees grow thicker more quickly, which could boost biomass production
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