debra mohnen

Debra Mohnen

A professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Georgia has discovered a gene that, when manipulated, increases the growth of biofuel plants.

Debra Mohnen found that affecting a particular gene in the plants increased the biomass of switchgrass and poplar. It also increases the sugar released in biomass processing.

Mohnen led her team and helped them complete this research, which may help fight against climate change.

Mohnen and her team conduct research about how cell walls are created. It is within these cell walls that most of the carbon dioxide plants absorb from the atmosphere is stored, she said.

Biofuels are plants that can be used to provide energy. Switchgrass and poplar are two biofuel plants, Mohnen said.

In the process of turning plants into biofuel, carbon dioxide held in the complex carbohydrates in the cell wall is converted into energy.

Typically, fossil fuels are used to create energy. But when fossil fuels were formed, they took in carbon dioxide that was in the atmosphere millions of years ago. By burning these fuels, humans are adding carbon to the atmosphere, trapping heat and causing climate change.

Biofuels, on the other hand, use the carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere. When biofuels are burned for energy, it releases “modern” carbon dioxide — there is no net increase in carbon.

Using biofuels to create energy creates a “carbon neutral process,” Mohnen said.

Mitigating climate change

Mohnen and her team worked to find a way to make it easier to deconstruct cell walls so they could find a way to make the conversion of cell walls into biofuels more efficient.

They needed to make the wall easier to break down, so that it would be easier for the sugars to be released.

deborah mohnen 2

Deborah Mohnen (right) works with genes to increase biomass in plants and use them for biofeul.

In their research, they found the gene GAUT 4, one of the genes that begins the cell wall building process.

When the gene’s expression is suppressed, it's easier to break down the plant cell walls, causing the plants to grow larger. Switchgrass responded to this both in the greenhouse and in field trials, while poplar only responded to this in the greenhouse, Mohnen said.

Mohnen believes to reach to a sustainable world, we have to better understand how to use the plant resources to which we have access. Mohnen’s research will help tailor plants toward exactly what they need to be able to do.

According to National Geographic, one of the major pitfalls of biofuels is the amount of carbon dioxide released in the process of growing plants, producing fertilizers and pesticides and turning the plants into fuel. There is a debate about whether the amount of carbon dioxide plants take in from the atmosphere is equivalent to the amount that is released in the process of growing plants.

Mohnen’s research, in finding a way to increase the biomass of plants grown, helps neutralize this carbon transfer and helps increase the amount of energy the process yields.

“Increasing our understanding by basic research is critical,” Mohnen said, as “it is the battery that generates the discovery that can be used by companies.”

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