I was waiting for this to happen. One of the major stumbling blocks to efficient production of biofuels is the conversion of bulky biomass into ethanol. GM bacteria that can condense this complex process into a single multi-course meal have been in the works for some time already.
Now the major agricultural biotechs are jumping into the game with plants designed specifically to be energy crops.
Syngenta, DuPont, Monsanto and others all have plans — some incorporating GM, others using traditional breeding techniques — to synthesize tomorrow’s energy in a plant cell.
Syngenta wants to engineer a “self-processing” corn that essentially converts itself into ethanol when the time is right. DuPont will start designing soybeans for biodiesel, and Ceres is interested in creating switchgrass that is even better than the conventional variety when it comes to yield-per-acre of cellulosic ethanol.
A perennial grass I’ve never heard of called miscanthus and the recently sequenced poplar tree are also considered good candidates for energy crops. Genetic engineering of these plants is a bit more dicey than in the case of annuals, however, since the live longer and spread their seed more easily.
Whether you take this development as hopeful or heinous, one thing is sure: agribusiness is likely to get a major PR boost from these projects. As the editors of Nature Biotechnology recently said, “it’s difficult to oppose a technology that’s helping to save the planet.”