NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Genomics will play a key role in helping to shift energy production away from fossil fuels and toward biofuels, according to Eddy Rubin, director of the US Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute.
In a review article appearing online today in Nature, Rubin underscored the importance of genomics research and technologies for realizing the potential of biofuels — particularly those based on cellulosic biomass. Rubin highlighted the impact that current genomics projects could have on biofuel production and also pointed to areas that are ripe for exploration.
Calling the development of alternative energy sources an “urgent global priority,” Rubin argued that genetics and genomics offer a means of speeding up biofuel development and increasing the likelihood that optimal methods are used in the process.
“I think that in the future biology is clearly going to impact on energy,” Rubin told GenomeWeb Daily News. “Due to the dramatic demand for liquid fuels, we are going to use biology — either inefficient or efficient biology — to meet that demand.”
The energy in biofuels ultimately relies on the ability of plants to store the sun’s energy as plant material — particularly cell wall compounds such as cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin. Releasing and harnessing that energy can be done in several different ways. For instance, Rubin noted, ethanol production from corn is currently a common method of biofuel production.
But, he noted in the article, cellulosic biofuels — those based on the breakdown of cell-wall polymers and fermentation into biofuels — are considered by many to be the most scaleable and high-energy biofuel source. Because they aren’t based on food crops and can grow in areas that don’t produce these crops, cellulosic biofuels are also less likely to create a “food-versus-fuel” conflict, Rubin noted.
With adequate investment in science, biology, and genomics, Rubin said it should also be possible to come up with strategies to make biofuel production more cost-effective and efficient, while simultaneously minimizing the impact of biofuel production on land and resources.
To do this, though, researchers need to look carefully at each step of biofuel production. The first of these involves capturing sunlight energy in plants. At that stage, it may be possible to improve biofuel production by selecting for plant traits that allow maximum harvesting or breakdown of sugars.
Similarly, researchers can look to nature to see how other organisms use plant material. “Right now, plants have evolved to be recalcitrant — resistant — to break down,” Rubin explained. But some microorganisms have developed their own tools for breaking down this plant material. By understanding these natural enzymes, it may be possible to overcome the expensive, rate-limiting step of breaking down plant material.
A better understanding of other microorganisms, such as the recently sequenced yeast Pichia stipitis, which ferments specific plant sugars, may also provide insights into the most efficient way of converting the plant biomass to the sugars that form the foundation of biofuels.
The potential benefits of genomic research don’t end with sequencing projects aimed at deciphering the genomes of particular plants or microbes of interest. Metagenomic surveys looking at the collection of organisms in certain environment may prove very useful, Rubin emphasized.
“Using this prospecting technique, we can survey the vast microbial biodiversity to gain a better picture of the metabolic potential of genes and how they can be enlisted for the enzymatic deconstruction of biomass and subsequent conversion to high energy value fuels,” Rubin said in a statement.
Genomics and metagenomics can inform studies of other, non-cellulosic energy sources — including algae and microbes — too. Synthetic biology, the development of artificial biological systems based on genomics and other research, may also facilitate the genesis of biofuel production schemes that are cheaper and more efficient than the natural alternative, Rubin pointed out.
The biofuel undertaking may seem daunting. Fortunately for those entering the bioenergy research arena, Rubin said, they have access to technology and tools developed for another daunting undertaking: the Human Genome Project. “The strategies that were pioneered in sequencing the human genome for the improvement of human health are now poised to be an important contributing technology in the challenge to develop environmentally and socially acceptable alternatives to fossil fuels,” he wrote.