Breeding better grasses for food and fuel is possible

GENES which could help breed grasses with improved properties for diet and bioenergy have been discovered.

Researchers from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Sustainable Bioenergy Centre have discovered a family of genes important in developing the fibrous, woody parts of grasses, like rice and wheat.

The team hopes by understanding how these genes work, they might be able to breed varieties of cereals where the fibrous parts of the plants give dietary benefits, or crops whose straw requires less energy-intensive processing in order to produce biofuels.

Locked

Most of the energy stored in plants is contained within the woody parts, and billions of tonnes of this material is produced by global agriculture each year in growing cereals and other grass crops, but this energy is tightly locked away and is hard to get at.

This research could offer the possibility of multi-use crops where the grain could be used for food and feed and the straw used to produce efficient energy.

Professor Paul Dupree, of the University of Cambridge and part of the research team says: “Unlike starchy grains, the energy stored in the woody parts of plants is difficult to get at.

“Just as cows have to chew the cud and need a stomach with four compartments to extract enough energy from grass, we need energy-intensive mechanical and chemical processing to produce biofuels from straw.

“What we hope to do with this research is produce varieties of plants where the woody parts yield their energy much more readily - but without compromising the plant’s structure.”

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