Switchgrass is a promising prospect for advanced biofuels because it grows rapidly on marginal agricultural land without fertilizers or other additives.

Many experts believe that advanced biofuels made from cellulosic biomass are the most promising alternative to petroleum-based liquid fuels for a renewable, clean, green, domestic source of transportation energy. Nature, however, does not make it easy. Unlike the starch sugars in grains, the complex polysaccharides in the cellulose of plant cell walls are locked within a tough woody material called lignin. For advanced biofuels to be economically competitive, scientists must find inexpensive ways to release these polysaccharides from their bindings and reduce them to fermentable sugars that can be synthesized into fuels.

An important step towards achieving this goal has been taken by researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), a DOE Bioenergy Research Center led by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The JBEI researchers, working with researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, have demonstrated that introducing a maize (corn) gene into switchgrass, a highly touted potential feedstock for advanced biofuels, more than doubles (250 percent) the amount of starch in the plant’s cell walls and makes it much easier to extract polysaccharides and convert them into fermentable sugars.

The gene, a variant of the maize gene known as Corngrass1 (Cg1), holds the switchgrass in the juvenile phase of development, preventing it from advancing to the adult phase. “We show that Cg1 switchgrass biomass is easier for enzymes to break down and also releases more glucose during saccharification,” says Sandia’s Blake Simmons, a chemical engineer who heads JBEI’s Deconstruction Division and was one of the principal investigators for this research.

Read the rest of the article at Bio Fuel Daily.