New Technology Will Enhance Biofuel Potential

  • Published on January 19th, 2011

Sugarcane is currently the best crop for biofuel. In the regions where it can grow it is extremely productive.  Sugarcane ethanol production is typically 8-10 times as efficient as Corn ethanol. But sugarcane, like many other plants, is vegetatively propagated, or cloned, not grown from seeds.  It is very difficult and slow to breed for desirable traits.

Today Chromatin, Inc. announced that it has successfully employed its “mini-chromosome” technology in sugarcane as a part of its collaboration with Switzerland head-quartered Syngenta.  What this technology allows is the simultaneous addition of several genes, something that is difficult or impossible to to with standard genetic engineering methods.    To move traits into multiple varieties of cloned crops such as sugarcane would be prohibitively expensive under current regulatory limitations.

How It Works

Chromatin uses the DNA of the host plant to make an additional chromosome that has all that is needed for it to be replicated along with all the other chromosomes.  Starting with that basic structure, the new chromosome can carry several new genes.  The new chromosome is stable in the plant and there is no “random insertion” into the host genome as with a standard GMO crop.

Why Sugarcane?

Sugarcane is already far and away the most efficient biofuel crop, but this technology could be used to further enhance that advantage.  With both energy prices and global food prices rising, this crop becomes a very logical candidate for alternative energy with minimum food impact.

An Option For Other Vegetatively Propagated Crops?

Many important food crops are also vegetatively propagated (technically speaking, “cloned.”).  These include potatoes, cassava, garlic and all fruits.  For most of those crops it has never made economic sense to invest in genetic engineering.  The Chromatin technology has the potential to change that depending on the regulatory environment.  For instance, there are genes in wild versions of cultivated potatoes or grapes that could be moved into the desirable, commercial varieties of those same species to address major disease problems for those crops.

It will take many years for all of this to play out from a technical and regulatory perspective, but today’s announcement is definitely a key milestone.  There will be plenty of time to discuss and study the ramifications of this technology before it goes to a commercial scale.

You are welcome to comment here or to email me at

(Sugarcane image from Rufino Uribe via Wikimedia Commons)

About the Author

Born in Denver, now living near San Diego. Agricultural scientist for 30+ years with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Have worked for Colorado State University, DuPont and Mycogen and for the last 13 years consulting for all sorts or companies, universities and grower groups. Experience in biological control, natural products, synthetic chemicals, genetics, GMOs and agronomic practices. Have given multiple invited talks on the interaction between agriculture and climate change (both ways)


  • June,
    I would guess that the traits would be around efficiency of conversion to energy. As for whether energy technology has progressed beyond burning, remember that there are trillions of dollars invested in the infrastructure for liquid transportation fuels, so even if we are shifting, that won’t happen over night. As for the “potato study” you cited, that was an absurd example of “agenda science.” The guy took a gene for a known toxin, put it in a potato and fed it to rats and then acted like it was a surprise.

    Before you are automatically against every new idea it would be good to learn more about it and consider the fact that even small steps away from fossil fuel dependence are worthy of rational consideration

  • sounds like a whole new can of worms! what traits do they plan to add to sugarcane genetic structure to ‘enhance biofuel potential’? and WHY? hasn’t energy technology progressed beyond burning? and isn’t it logical to assume that the bodies of the creatures that eat it will recognize it as ‘alien’, as the rats did in the potato study? and that line, ‘depending on the regulatory environment’!!!!??? i guess you mean how many officials can be placed whose venality surpasses their sense?

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