MSU study celebrates marriage of algae gene to a weed

Feb 26, 2013

Michigan State University researchers are celebrating the marriage of a weed and an algae gene -- and its value as a potential biofuel. 

The team found that adding an algae gene to mustard weed caused the plant to store oil in its leaves, and the technique could be used to get more energy out of plants grown for bio-fuel.

Christoph Benning, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at MSU
Christoph Benning, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at MSU
Credit Courtesy: Michigan State University

Christoph Benning is a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at MSU.  He says the experiment was a collaboration between four different labs at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.

Benning says plants usually store oil in their seeds.   So what they’re doing with this plant is sort of like making great steak.   “When you have Kobe beef you have nice marbling in it”, he adds.  “And it makes it taste better.  So the marbling is the fat.  So basically we’re making plant leaves that have more marbling, more oil in it.”

And to confirm that the improved mustard weed plants were more nutritious and contained more energy, the research team fed them to caterpillar larvae.  The lucky larvae who ate leaves from the enhanced plants gained more weight than worms who only got regular leaves.

Critics of ethanol (made from corn) complain that it competes with corn as a food crop.  Benning says this algae gene could double plants' potential energy output.

And the next phase of research will add the gene to grasses or other plants that can be processed for fuel.  He adds, “it wouldn't be necessarily crop plants or food plants. So it would be a dedicated bio fuel crop.”

The results of the study are published in the current issue of the journal of the American Society of Plant Biologists. 

- Chris Zollars, Michigan Radio News