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Improving biofuels from oilseeds

Making aviation biofuels from non-food crops is the goal of a new Department of Energy-funded project that includes significant contributions from Washington State University.

“Automobiles are moving more toward electric fueling, but batteries are too heavy for airplanes,” said Philip Bates, an associate professor in WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry. “Liquid fuels don’t weigh very much for the energy you can get out of them. The goal is to move toward fuel that is renewable and sustainable.”

WSU’s portion of the five-year, $12.8 million grant totals just over $1.1 million.  The grant is part of a larger DOE project that is providing $178 million to advance bioenergy technology.

Bates is an expert in how plants create and metabolize fatty acids. He’ll be working to find bottlenecks in plants’ creation of energy-dense fatty oils on a metabolic level, and investigating how plants adapt to genetic changes.

“We want plants to make more and better oils that can be used to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels,” Bates said.

The project will focus on pennycress and camelina because these plants do not compete with food crops—an important consideration when the global population is expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050. These oilseeds are also resilient, with the ability to grow as winter cover crops or on marginal or underused land.

Pennycress and camelina oilseeds aren’t ideal precursors for bioproducts —yet. Their oil content is suboptimal —roughly 30% of their seed weight is oil, falling short of the 40% or more target —and they contain a less-than-ideal mixture of fatty acids. The team aims to change both characteristics. 

“We’re trying to make not just more oil per seed, but oil of a more defined chemical structure to make biomaterials with more uniform and consistent properties,” said Edgar Cahoon, the project lead and George W. Holmes professor of biochemistry at the University of Nebraska.

The team will produce genetically enhanced seed oils. Using high-throughput camera-based phenotyping, the researchers will test the engineered crops under diverse environmental conditions and use that data to improve the new lines. Specialized biocontainment technology will ensure the plants’ genetic modifications do not escape into other crops or wild species.

The project will pave the way for wider use of oilseeds in environmentally friendly and sustainable applications. Cahoon expects the team’s work to have an impact beyond pennycress and camelina. Findings related to the plastid’s metabolic circuitry, as well as the synthetic biology tools, will be valuable to scientists pursuing next-generation engineering of other plant feedstocks.

In addition to WSU and Nebraska, the DOE grant includes investigators from the University of Colorado, Kansas State University, Montana State University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Missouri, and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.

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