Tobacco Plants May Boost Biofuel and Biorefining Industries
(Science Daily) Researchers will genetically modify tobacco plants to produce enzymes that can break down biomass from forest raw materials. This may lead to a more effective, economic and sustainable production of biofuels, they say.
Today the forest-based biorefining industries face huge challenges. The cell walls of wood biomass are very hard to break down and large quantities of enzymes are required in the industrial process. A Norwegian based research project now aims to develop low cost production of industrial enzymes using tobacco plants as a “green factory.” Such enzymes may be used in the production of second generation biofuels, and to produce biochemicals that can replace various oil-based products. Second generation biofuels are made from non-food biomass.
Currently the production cost of enzymes is high, which is a major impediment for a sustainable and cost effective biorefinery. This challenge is especially important for the Norwegian forest industry.
Usually chemical enzymes are produced in a fermenter-based system, which is a common industrial system to produce for instance food and alcohol. It is very expensive to build up a fermentation system. It has to be sterile, and it needs a lot of energy and water to control pressure and temperature. The Bioboost project will decrease the carbon footprint of biorefining by using genetically engineered tobacco, a non-food and non-feed crop, as a green enzyme factory. The goal is to replace energy demanding fermenter-based systems.
Liu Clarke does not see any major ethical dilemmas regarding the application of GM (genetically modification) technology on tobacco plants.
“First of all, we do not eat the tobacco plant, and it does not grow naturally in Norway because the climate is too cold. The plants are cultivated in a confined greenhouse, with the permission of the Norwegian Directorate of Health. Many people are sceptical to GMOs, but in this case, we use tobacco plants with the help of biotechnology to produce valuable enzymes for industrial biorefinery. I believe there are mainly benefits, because we produce cheap enzymes and use the tobacco plant in a health-friendly way,” says Liu Clarke. READ MORE