April 25, 2011

University of Kentucky plant biochemist Joseph Chappell recently received a nearly $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to engineer plants to produce unique oils suitable for manufacturing combustible fuels and other petrochemical-like materials including nylon, paints and plastics.

“The major objective of this grant is to develop plants as a sustainable production platform for petrochemicals, chemicals that can be used directly as combustible fuels and for industrial manufacturing,” said Chappell, a professor in the UK College of Agriculture. “Our ultimate goal is to lower our dependence on the Earth’s limited fossil fuels and to develop environmentally sensitive solutions for our long-range energy and industrial manufacturing needs.”

In the five-year, $985,000 grant from the USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture, Chappell will use the methods of molecular biology and genetic engineering to develop plants that make the same oil as that synthesized by the algae Botryococcus braunii. This algae and its oil, comprised of long, branch-chain hydrocarbons, were major contributors to the oil and coal deposits that developed on Earth over the geological time scale of hundreds of millions of years.

Members of Chappell’s laboratory developed a video to demonstrate the value of the Botryococcus braunii oil relative to oils from other algae. It’s available online at www.youtube.com/watch?v=1lmSLmcUH90 .

In preliminary work, supported by the National Science Foundation and Sapphire Energy, Chappell and members of his laboratory captured the Botryococcus braunii algae’s genetic blueprints to understand how it produces this oil.

With this knowledge, they will genetically engineer plants, including tobacco, sorghum and Miscanthus x giganteus, with the goal of mimicking the production of this unique oil in terrestrial plants and leading to a renewable production platform for petroleum deposits.

“Dr. Chappell has a long record of genetically engineering plants to produce abundant, unique biochemicals,” said Todd Pfeiffer, chair of the UK Department of Plant and Soil Sciences. “Successfully modifying sorghum and miscanthus to improve their biofuel production will help advance Kentucky towards our goal of producing 12 percent of Kentucky’s 2025 fuel demand from biofuels.”

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