Bioenergy: Plant cell walls hold the secret

UGA scientists have teamed up with researchers at major universities, national laboratories and industry in a new $125 million federal bioenergy research center to achieve the scientific breakthroughs that will efficiently – and economically – convert plants into fuels.

The new Bioenergy Science Center is one of three centers funded by the U.S. Department of Energy that aim to make cellulosic biofuels cost competitive with gasoline by 2012.

“This research has the potential to make ethanol a significant replacement for fossil fuels for this country’s future energy needs,” said Regents Professor Alan Darvill, cofounder and director of the UGA’s Complex Carbohydrate Research Center and leader of the UGA team.

The BESC researchers will focus on the principal obstacle in converting cellulosic biomass – woody plants – into ethanol: the plants’ resistant cell walls. Darvill explained that plant cell walls evolved as barriers to insects, disease and weather, but they also provide a barrier to breaking the plants down into sugars that can be processed into fuel.

“The difficulty of this challenge,” said Darvill, “is that we first need to understand how plant cell walls are put together in order to break them apart.”

Researchers at the BESC will address the problem by combining two biotechnological approaches. The first focuses on understanding, identifying and then modifying the genes affecting the composition and structure of plant cell walls to develop plants whose cell walls are optimized to convert from biomass to ethanol.

The second approach explores how to genetically engineer microorganisms to assist in the breakdown and fermentation of the sugars in plants, thus consolidating the multiple steps in the conversion of biomass to ethanol.

“We believe that combining these two approaches could revolutionize how biomass is processed within five years,” Darvill said.

Research at the BESC will target switchgrass and poplar, two plants that hold significant promise as sources for biomass conversion to biofuels because of their broad adaptability and the ease with which they can be grown and harvested. Darvill noted, however, that all plant biomass will benefit from this research.

“UGA has a tremendous team of scientists with a true collaborative spirit in place to address one of the nation’s biggest scientific challenges,” Darvill said. The UGA team draws on scientists from the departments of genetics; biochemistry and molecular biology; microbiology; plant biology; crop and soil sciences; and computer sciences.

Just as important, said Darvill, is the synergy among the BESC’s research partners.

“It is very difficult for any individual research center to successfully address this challenge alone,” he said.

UGA’s partners in the BESC include the Oakridge National Laboratory, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and other university and private partners, as well as individual researchers from across the country.