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New 'Frankenstein' Grass Could Be Huge For Biofuel Industry

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By Deena Shanker, Revmodo.com

Now here is a GMO I can get behind: starchier grass. A research partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of California, Berkeley has yielded a variety of switchgrass 250 times starchier than other varieties. More starch means more sugars to ferment into ethanol, making this super grass a huge boon for biofuel users.

Scientists created this “Frankenstein” grass by inserting a specific corn gene into the switchgrass. The gene keeps the grass from aging, leaving it to languish in its youthful starchiness without entering its adult phases of flowering, seed production and growth. The starch that would otherwise be used by the plant for nourishing flower buds and blossoms stays in the stem instead.

In addition to getting the crops just right, the research team is also monitoring water use needed to grow these crops, recognizing that “water availability could be the single most limiting factor in U.S. biomass production.”

This high-efficiency ingredient will make biofuel production less costly, possibly even giving it the needed boost to compete with petroleum-based fuels. As Revmodo has covered, the Navy is currently working to transition to biofuels and other forms of clean energy. Those efforts have been met with Republican opposition from Congressmen who claim it’s a concern over costs: using ethanol and other biofuels costs significantly more than conventional fuels.

The scientists involved in the project are optimistic that the switchgrass will be established as a reliable bioenergy crop, leading the U.S. to energy independence. Ann Perry from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service said, “I’m glad that so many scientists are now working together on ways of establishing switchgrass as a bioenergy crop that can help the United States develop its own renewable energy sources.”

This new switchgrass gives hope to the idea that biofuel production could one day be cost-competitive, making arguments like the Republicans’ less convincing, biofuel use more widespread, and the world greener for everyone.

Main photo credit: Shutterstock.com

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