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Researchers: Bacterial Control Could Power MT Biomass Production

June 16, 2010

CHOTEAU, Mont. - Biomass is often touted as a potential renewable energy source for Montana, a state with leftover forest wood waste and wheat straw in abundance. And a breakthrough in genetic research at the Department of Energy's Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) may make it easier and cheaper to convert those plant materials into fuel.

Being able to turn genetic switches 'on' and 'off' in bacteria could be the key. A research team at GLBRC has made a breakthrough in finding a way to identify genetic factors connected to converting plant material into sugars – which, in turn, can become biofuels. Scientist David Keating led the research team.

"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."

In a nutshell, Keating says, they're creating bacterial genetic maps focused on changing plant materials into simple sugars.

"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."

Keating says being able to control bacteria at the genetic level to carry out the conversion into fuel would improve the industrial process. Right now, the cost of biomass is a stumbling block to large-scale production. Details of the project are online at www.glbrc.org.

Deb Courson, Public News Service - MT