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Gene discovery to increase biomass needed for green fuel

Visit  University of Manchester website

10 February 2010

Manchester scientists have identified the genes that make plants grow fatter and plan to use their research to increase plant biomass in trees – thus helping meet the need for renewable resources.

“The US has set the ambitious goal of generating a third of all liquid fuel from renewable source by the year 2025. Estimates suggest to reach their goal they would need 1 billion tonnes of biomass, which is a lot,” says Professor Simon Turner, one of the University of Manchester researchers whose BBSRC-funded study is published in Development today (Wednesday 10th February 2010).

“Our work has identified the two genes that make plants grow outwards. The long, thin cells growing down the length of a plant divide outwards, giving that nice radial pattern of characteristic growth rings in trees. So you get a solid ring of wood in the centre surrounded by growing cells. Now we have identified the process by which the cells know how to grow outwards, we hope to find a way of making plants grow thicker quicker, giving us the increased wood production that could be used for biofuels or other uses.

“And there is an added benefit. There are concerns that the growing of biofuel products competes with essential food production. However, the part of the plant we have studied is the stalk – not the grain – so there will be no competition with food production.”

Professor Turner and Dr Peter Etchells, at the Faculty of Life Sciences, studied the plant Arabidopsis which does not look like a tree but has a similar vascular system, (which carries water and sugar around the plant). They investigated growth in the vascular bundles and found that the genes PXY and CLE41 directed the amount and direction of cell division. Furthermore, they found over-expression of CLE41 caused a greater amount of growth in a well-ordered fashion, thus increasing wood production.

Professor Turner explained: “We wanted to know how the cells divided to produce this pattern, how they ‘knew’ which side to divide along, and we found that it was down to the interaction of these two genes.

“Trees are responsive to a lot of things. They stop growing in winter and start again in spring and this changes according to the amount of light and the day length. It takes a tree 150 years to grow in Finland and only ten years in Portugal.

“Now we know what genes are dictating the growth process, we can develop a system of increasing growth so that it is orientated to produce more wood – increasing the essential biomass needed for our future.”

The team are now growing poplar trees in the lab – to see if they fit the Arabidopsis model. They will use these results to develop a system of increasing wood production.

ENDS

Notes to editors

The paper ‘The PXY-CLE41 receptor ligand pair defines a multifunctional pathway that controls the rate and orientation of vascular cell division’ (Development) is available. Images are also available.

For more information, images or an interview with Professor Simon Turner see external contact below.

About The University of Manchester

A member of the Russell Group, was ranked with the elite group of research universities traditionally formed by the triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London in the recent Research Assessment Exercise 2008. Its external research income is £263M. Its Faculty of Life Sciences, with more than 1,000 people involved in research, 1,700 undergraduate students and an annual total budget of £65M, is one of the largest and most successful unified research and teaching organisations of its kind in Europe. See http://www.ls.manchester.ac.uk/

About BBSRC

BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £450M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK  and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:

  • The Babraham Institute
  • Institute for Animal Health
  • Institute for Biological, Environmental and Rural Studies (Aberystwyth University)
  • Institute of Food Research
  • John Innes Centre
  • The Genome Analysis Centre
  • The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh)
  • Rothamsted Research

The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

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