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Midwest Biomass Detectives on the Case

June 16, 2010

MINNEAPOLIS - Researchers have taken a major step forward in cracking the genetic secrets that would make it easier and cheaper to convert tons of Midwest biomass into energy. A team at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) has found a way to identify specific genetic factors that could lead to less expensive biofuel production.

Scientist David Keating of the University of Wisconsin led the team that has figured out a way to "turn off" certain genetic switches, one at a time, to determine a way to produce a bacterium that can turn crop waste into fuel.

"If we disrupt that gene and now the organism can't degrade this material, we know that gene is really important and that's a gene we want to study further."

Through this process of elimination, the genetic detectives are hoping to find the genes that impact turning waste to fuel. Keating says the new genetic method will allow scientists to understand how bacteria carry out this conversion, which should provide new avenues for improving the industrial process.

He explains microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi, are capable of converting biomass to simple sugars, but historically, they have been difficult to study using genetic approaches.

"What this really involves is a way to be able to identify which genes matter, which ones don't, and to really harness the power of the bacterial genome to improve things."

Currently, the cost to convert biomass to fuel is higher than traditional energy sources such as oil, which makes biomass less attractive as an alternative. The new breakthrough could help bring the conversion costs down significantly, to provide a cheaper and renewable Midwest alternative to oil.

Sharon Rolenc/Chris Thomas, Public News Service - MN