While many genetic scientists working in biofuels are trying to engineer a “super bug” to chomp through cellulosic feedstocks, scientists at DuPont are taking a different route. Researchers from Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a unit of DuPont, are trying to charge up corn’s oil output. And this week its scientists announced that they have successfully located a key gene in corn that controls oil yield.
The scientists claim that tweaking an amino acid within this gene could boost oil production 41 percent and increase oleic acid output (the edible fat in corn) by 107 percent. Corn as a first-generation feedstock for biofuels has come under heavy fire for its carbon-intensive farming methods, water usage and low energy output. This breakthrough could alleviate some concerns by raising oil yield per acre, although a 41 percent increase is small compared to the potential of many cellulosic and algae-based biofuel feedstocks, which promise increased oil yields on the scale of 100 times that of corn.
The discovery comes on the heels of a breakthrough from researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute, who said last month they had successfully created a synthetic bacterial genome. The two milestones are, however, distinctly different. While DuPont hopes to manipulate this single gene inside corn’s existing genome, the Venter org’s work seeks to build genomes, and by extension, organisms, from scratch, giving scientists control over every aspect of the resulting genetically modified organism.
Genetically engineering crops to be better suited for fuel production is a central thrust of much biofuel research and development and is seen as a smart way to increase fuel yields per acre. While tech investors and scientists are gung ho on the idea, critics in the environmental movement want to ban any kind of genetically engineered plants, whether they make it into the food supply or our fuel pumps.
The EU, which has some of the toughest legislation to keep GMOs out of the European food supply, has been revamping its biofuel standards as well. But it remains to be seen whether frankenfuels will be greeted in the same way that frankenfoods have been in some parts of the world. But as more biofuels start running our vehicles, the debate will only get louder.