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DOE Will Enlist Academia to Help It Apply Genomics to Build Biofuel Industry

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) - University researchers will help the US Department of Energy's Genomics:GTL program improve ways to develop alternative energy sources, a DOE spokesperson said late last week.
The DOE on Friday released a 200-page roadmap in which it described ways the Genomics:GTL program could help make cellulose-based ethanol production cost-effective. Specifically, the DOE said that DNA sequencing technologies and gene discovery methodologies could enable researchers to increase production of biomass feedstock, break down cellulosic materials into sugars, and improve the fermentation process that converts sugars into ethanol.
Following a press conference that accompanied the release, the spokesperson said that the DOE plans to make university research projects a part of how the ethanol program will explore technology questions related to those goals. A fact sheet accompanying the report made no mention of university participation.
The spokesperson also said the roadmap doesn't reflect any decisions on specific tools, vendor services, or funding, but merely reflects areas of research identified during a workshop held last winter.
The spokesperson said the DOE has a timeline for technological milestones but declined to disclose it.
The DOE roadmap suggests that biotechnologies and techniques developed during the Human Genome Project and continued in the Genomics:GTL program can play a role. "The plan leverages ... advances made in genomics research and computation to build the new scientific and practical foundation needed to support an economic and sustainable biofuel industry," the government said in the fact sheet.
According to the fact sheet, "the power of modern genome sequencing and the capabilities at the DOE's Joint Genome Institute can be applied to these challenges." The DOE said that genome sequence from plants such as switchgrass and poplar trees "will allow researchers to improve their knowledge about plant feedstocks and microbes used for conversion."
The agency said researchers will need to identify genes that help synthesize cell-wall molecules and higher structures; define enzymatic reactions; design principles of cell walls; and better understand the factors that control the "amounts, composition, and structure of polymers and polymer matrices," the government said in the fact sheet.
"Discovery of new biomass-degrading biochemistries in organisms across many different kingdoms of life --- including plants, fungi, and bacteria --- will also expand our capabilities relevant to biomass conversion to biofuels," it concluded.
The roadmap was developed during a December 2005 workshop hosted jointly by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research in the Office of Science and the Office of the Biomass Program in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
The report, "Breaking the Biological Barriers to Cellulosic Ethanol: A Joint Research Agenda," may be viewed at Genomics:GTL's web site.

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