- Much of today’s biofuel is generated using cellulose; a membrane complex that surrounds plant cell walls. Enzymes target the cellulose and convert it into sugars which can then be used for fuel production. However, as cellulose is has a very stable, crystallised structure, it is difficult for enzymes to break it down. This may lead to lower than optimal energy yields.
- In response, new research has genetically modified plants to “weaken” the cellulose cell walls and make them easier to break down for biofuel. The results show that not only does the modification show real changes in cell wall composition, it also makes the cellulose easier to extract for conversion.
- These advances could make biofuels a more viable and sustainable option for energy production in the future. Critically, as agricultural land becomes increasingly in demand for food production, increasing the bio-energy yield per crop has the potential to reduce land use pressures and marginally reduce conflict in land use.
- However, as GM crops are currently banned in the UK, changes in the political landscape would be needed to maximise the benefits. In addition, field-based research would be required to ensure that weakening the cell walls did not lead to reductions in crop resilience to disease/ drought/ other confounding factors that may affect production rates.
Either way, GM technologies may provide a potential solution to improve biofuels, at a time when they are being increasingly used for defence, aerospace, and transport.