Bio-Fuels from GM Crops
The Bio-Fuels Debate seems to have given a new lease of life to genetically modified crops. Plants genetically engineered to make them suitable for making bio-fuels will help solve the problems of food shortage caused by using conventional crop for this purpose.
‘Non-food- green energy commodity’
This gives the GM sector an opportunity to reposition itself as ‘non-food- green energy commodity’. Crops such as corn, if genetically modified to increase drought resistance and yield, can reduce the cost and increase production efficiency of ethanol.
With the help of Genetic Engineering plants can be made to minimize the amount of lingin that they produce. While lingin is the substance that helps keep plants grow upright, it also interferes with the cellulose to ethanol process. Improved genetically modified crops can help fuel hungry countries with an alternative fuel source for the different industries that they have.
Genetic modifications can also help creation of powerful enzymes which will convert crop wastes for plants such as switchgrass. This may take many years of research to accomplish. But a GM bio-fuel crop is a reality and is being produced in reasonably large scales, especially in the US.
Sugars composed in plants are linked together to form a structure called cellulose. Cellulose is mostly insoluble and unreactive. To make ethanol these cellulose components need to be broken down to its component sugars, and then converted to ethanol.
GE can make process easier
The whole process is extremely energy intensive. Genetic engineering can make the process easier by engineering the fuel plants to produce their own cellulose digesting enzymes and store them in a safe compartment inside a cell.
Plant growth too can be boosted with genetic engineering by increasing a hormone that regulates plant height. It can also boost the cellulose content by adding additional copies of the genes that catalyze its synthesis.
GE can also be used to make the cellulose content easier to digest. It can be achieved by reducing the dose of the enzymes that produce the cross-links among cellulose fibers or adding modifications that make cellulose more soluble.
Major forces in bio-fuel industry
Most energy crops in Europe are in the form of non-GM sugarbeet, rapeseed and corn. However, efforts are on to import in to Europe a GM maize variety which has been modified to express an enzyme (AMY797E), a key component in the production of bio-ethanol. This variety of maize shortens the time it takes to ferment the feedstock into alcohol.
In the US and Brazil, research on genetically engineered sugarcane and sugar beets, the other two common energy crops, is in an advanced stage. These two crops will become major forces in the bio-fuel industry. Brazil has recently decided to use GM Soya for bio-fuels, while ‘good soya’ will be kept for human consumption. A high percentage of soya is already available in GM versions and Argentina has recently established incentives to expand GM soya bean cultivation for bio-diesel use.
- Bio-fuels strengthen case for GM crops
- The next genetic revolution?
- Moving beyond food crops