The New GMOs: Plants Engineered to Be Better Biofuels

A new crop of GMOs could improve biofuels. The Department of Energy even has a cute name for them—Plants Engineered To Replace Oils, or PETROs.

A new breed of genetically modified crops is heading towards America’s fields. Scientists across the country are engineering these crops not to survive a shower of pesticides or a harsh drought but to wean the country away from oil imports. They’re biofuel crops, and they’re meant to convert more carbon more efficiently into plant matter that can be more easily processed into biofuels. The Department of Energy has even come up with a cute name for them—Plants Engineered To Replace Oil, or PETROs.

Maybe the department is hoping that if they avoid the words “genetically modified,” no one will freak out about this bent of research, for which the department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy just doled out $36 million. Although most of us have probably eaten them in some processed-beyond-recognition form, Americans don’t love the idea of genetically modified crops. Or, perhaps more accurately, we don’t love the giant corporations that produce their seeds and use their patents to bully farmers. Unlike Europeans, though, we tolerate them. The trade-off is that they’re grown within the confines of a regulatory regime that some scientists say is stifling innovation.

ARPA-E is funding 10 PETRO projects, and most of them are trying in some way to improve upon photosynthesis, which, despite being the foundation of all life on earth, isn’t particularly efficient at converting sunlight into fuel. Researchers aim to create plants that “use light more efficiently” or use it to “intensify the leaf color to more efficiently capture and use sunlight.” PETROs could store more oil in seeds like soybeans or store the same type of energy-dense cells in their leaves and stems. They’re plants like Camelina, which is also an animal feed, but sugar cane, sweet sorghum, pine trees, which produce turpentine, and even tobacco. (Southern farmers have to do something with the stuff, apparently.)

For the most part, the ARPA-E grants are going to universities and other independent research bodies. But the Department of Energy is also supporting advanced biofuel research through programs like the Joint BioEnergy Institute in San Francisco. JBEI is working on growing plants that produce less hard-to-process lignin and more energy-rich cellulose.

The hope for these genetically engineered crops is that they’ll cause biofuels make a modicum of financial and environmental sense. The end goal in every case is to extract more fuel per acre, leaving more space and less competition for food crops.

Although the Department of Energy wants to move away from next-next-generation technology (and these crops definitely qualify as that), biofuels still pass muster. Right now, they’re the only fuel that could conceivably replace oil in jet planes. And since even the most optimistic estimates of hybrid and electric vehicle adoption rates still have most people driving traditional, if less gas-hungry, vehicles, these plants can also help reduce the carbon footprint of car use. Just remember that we’re calling them PETROs now, not GMOs, and hope that they won’t be used to drive every last small- and medium-scale farmer out of business.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user xdfrog

via Barry Schapiro / Twitter

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