While biodiesel and ethanol are two forms of biofuels used to power today’s cars and trucks, one sector of the transportation industry that is still developing a viable biofuel solution is the aviation industry. Today, an interdisciplinary team of researchers from across the United States, including the University of Missouri, is working to develop a sustainable green energy source from biofuel – a source of energy typically produced from vegetable oil. – as an alternative to petroleum-based oil. fossil fuel widely used in the aeronautical industry.
The team, using a $12.8 million grant from the US Department of Energy (DOE), will explore how two cover crops – plants grown to capture carbon from the Earth’s atmosphere to reduce carbon emissions. greenhouse gases – called camelina and pennycress could be genetically engineered to produce higher overall amounts of a specialty seed oil. The team’s goal is to mass-produce a vegetable oil that can be used as a biofuel for aviation purposes, according to Jay J. Thelen, professor of biochemistry at the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, also a researcher at the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center.
“We are trying to increase the overall amount of seed oil produced by both crops, as well as changing the composition of the oil from 18 to 10 carbons, which makes the oil more fluid for use in the aviation industry,” Thelen said.
Edgar Cahoon, George W. Holmes Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and principal investigator of the grant, explores how to extract genes from the cuphea plant – known for its medium-chain oil-producing characteristics – and uses biotechnology to transfer them to camelina and pennycress. Additionally, using $2.7 million of the $12.8 million grant, the MU team is using three of Thelen’s lab’s patented approaches to improving the overall oil content of plant seeds and applying them to Cahoon’s existing research on this topic.
The MU team hopes to understand why camelina and apricot do not produce the optimal amount of seed oil after cuphea’s medium-chain oil-producing traits were genetically engineered into both plants.
“When we transfer genes from cuphea to camelina or pennycress, we are going to do large-scale transcriptomics and proteomics to try to understand how the plant reacts to this new gene and see where the bottlenecks are that the Cahoon’s team knows,” says Thélen. “With this knowledge, we can complete the cycle of design, build, test and learn to gradually increase the levels of medium chain fatty acids in camelina or pennycress until we reach the optimum level.”
To do this, the MU team uses advanced proteomics technologies, including sophisticated state-of-the-art mass spectrometry instrumentation located in Thelen’s lab and MU’s Charles W. Gehrke Proteomics Center. The group will also use cutting-edge biotechnology approaches to gain insight into how plants respond to genetic engineering, Thelen said.
“Leveraging my lab’s expertise in discovery and targeted proteomics will provide us with the baseline knowledge we need to help understand why engineering high levels of medium-chain oils in camelina and pennycress has been elusive so far,” Thelen said.
This research creates a large amount of data to analyze, so internationally renowned bioinformatics researchers Dong Xu from MU College of Engineering and Trupti Joshi from MU School of Medicine join Thelen to help with this part of the project. The MU team will add the collected information to a related project by Xu to create an online database on the topic of oilseed plant metabolic engineering.
Since cover crops can be planted during the non-growing season and can also be grown in soils with less than ideal planting conditions, Thelen hopes the team’s work could provide farmers through the United States an additional option for making a profit beyond the traditional growing and harvesting seasons.
“Right now, these cover crops [camelina and pennycress] are primarily planted to earn federal carbon credits, but they are not harvested by farmers,” Thelen said.
In addition to MU and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the team includes researchers from Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, Kansas State University, Montana State University, University of Colorado-Boulder, University of Minnesota and Washington State University.
The grant was awarded under the DOE Biosystems Design to Enable Safe Production of Next-generation Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biomaterials program.