Boosting plant oil production

man in greenhouse with plantsPlant oils are the most energy-rich biomass available from plants; they have twice the energy content of carbohydrates. It also requires very little energy to extract plant oils and convert them to fuels.

So why aren't plant oils more widely used as a replacement for petroleum?

The main limitation is relatively low oil yield per acre of most oilseed crops. According to Christoph Benning, MSU professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, and John Ohlrogge (pictured at right), university distinguished professor of plant biology, moving toward large-scale biofuel production systems will require oilseed plants to be genetically reprogrammed to accumulate large amounts of oil at the right growth stage so the most oil per acre can be harvested.

Benning and Ohlrogge have made advances in understanding the pathways and regulation of oil biosynthesis in plants and have created new tools that will allow oil biosynthesis to be switched on in non-traditional oil plants and non-conventional tissues.

"Entirely new oil production schemes can now be envisioned," Ohlrogee explained. "They'll utilize plant seedlings for the conversion of lignocellulosic carbon into oil in a plant-based fermentation process similar to malting."

Ohlrogge and Benning are internationally known for their work on plant oil synthesis in seeds and leaves, and they have made several seminal discoveries of enzymes and regulatory factors that control plant oil synthesis. Their labs have more than 200 publications on topics related to plant oils and hold key patents on genes and methods related to plant lipids.