“Having sugar’s genetic template will allow us to look at growing sugarcane as a biofuel and a source of 100% recyclable bio-plastic, making it a substitute for petroleum in the production of countless items form cosmetics to car parts.”
An Australian researcher is conducting gene-editing experiments to tailor sugarcane production to effectively produce bio-fuels and bio-plastics. Professor Robert Henry, Director of the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food University (QAAFI) at the University of Queensland, said sugarcane’s “reinvention” as an “energycane” crop could sustain the industry in the face of falling global demand for sugar.
“The industry must think beyond just producing sugar, to also producing electricity, bio-fuels for transportation and oils to replace traditional plastics,” he said.
He added: “It’s about reinventing sugarcane as a crop with a wider range of end uses, and sugarcane is ideal for renewables because it is fast-growing with abundant biomass.”
He is working with a global team to sequence the sugarcane genome as part of a US Joint Genome Institute project.
“Sugar is the last major cultivated plant to have its genome sequenced, and we expect to see it fully decoded by 2020,” Henry.
“Having sugar’s genetic template will allow us to look at growing sugarcane as a biofuel and a source of 100% recyclable bio-plastic, making it a substitute for petroleum in the production of countless items form cosmetics to car parts,” he added.
She said: “Gene-editing of the sugarcane genome will allow the sugar industry to explore adaptations that will reduce environmental impacts, especially on the Great Barrier Reef. It will help the industry to broaden the potential of a sugar crop to a wider range of uses.
“Bio-fuels and bio-plastics will be important to the long-term future of the industry.”
Henry, who has helped lead genomic breakthroughs in decoding the sugarcane genome, said the science was quickly developing to allow growers to tap into the commercial opportunities in renewables.
“Australia’s sugarcane growers are facing a falling sugar price – driven by declining world demand and increased competition in India and Brazil. The industry must look to the future,” Henry said.
QAAFI researchers supported by the US Joint BioEnergy Institute (@jbei) and Sugar Research Australia (@sugarresearch )grant are testing a range of sugarcane varieties to identify which types produce ethanol most effectively and efficiently.
Researchers are also collaborating with the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi to investigate to processes that break down sugarcane fibre to make bio-plastics.
“Drink bottles made from sugarcane bio-plastics are just one product on the agenda from this collaboration,” Henry explained. “Economics is key. Now that we understand more about the genetics of sugarcane, these sorts of products are becoming commercially realistic.”
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