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

Ottawa Humane Society / Flickr

The Trump Administration won't be remembered for being kind to animals.

In 2018, it launched a new effort to reinstate cruel hunting practices in Alaska that had been outlawed under Obama. Hunters will be able to shoot hibernating bear cubs, murder wolf and coyote cubs while in their dens, and use dogs to hunt black bears.

Efforts to end animal cruelty by the USDA have been curtailed as well. In 2016, under the Obama Administration, the USDA issued 4,944 animal welfare citations, in two years the numbers dropped to just 1,716.

Keep Reading Show less
via I love butter / Flickr

We often dismiss our dreams as nonsensical dispatches from the mind while we're deep asleep. But recent research proves that our dreams can definitely affect our waking lives.

People often dream about their significant others and studies show it actually affects how we behave towads them the next day.

"A lot of people don't pay attention to their dreams and are unaware of the impact they have on their state of mind," said Dylan Selterman, psychology lecturer at the University of Maryland, says according to The Huffington Post. "Now we have evidence that there is this association."

Keep Reading Show less
via Real Time with Bill Maher / YouTube and The Late Late Show with James Corden / YouTube

A controversial editorial on America's obesity epidemic and healthcare by comedian Bill Maher on his HBO show "Real Time" inspired a thoughtful, and funny, response by James Cordon. It also made for a great debate about healthcare that Americans are avoiding.

At the end of the September 6th episode of "Real Time, " Maher turned to the camera for his usual editorial and discussed how obesity is a huge part of the healthcare debate that no one is having.

"At Next Thursday's debate, one of the candidates has to say, 'The problem with our healthcare system is Americans eat shit and too much of it.' All the candidates will mention their health plans but no one will bring up the key factor: the citizens don't lift a finger to help," Maher said sternly.

Keep Reading Show less

There is no shortage of proposals from the, um, what's the word for it… huge, group of Democratic presidential candidates this year. But one may stand out from the pack as being not just bold but also necessary; during a CNN town hall about climate change Andrew Yang proposed a "green amendment" to the constitution.

Keep Reading Show less
Me Too Kit

The creator of the Me Too kit — an at home rape kit that has yet to hit the market — has come under fire as sexual assault advocates argue the kit is dangerous and misleading for women.

The kit is marketed as "the first ever at home kit for commercial use," according to the company's website. "Your experience. Your kit. Your story. Your life. Your choice. Every survivor has a story, every survivor has a voice." Customers will soon be able order one of the DIY kits in order to collect evidence "within the confines of the survivor's chosen place of safety" after an assault.

"With MeToo Kit, we are able to collect DNA samples and other tissues, which upon testing can provide the necessary time-sensitive evidence required in a court of law to identify a sexual predator's involvement with sexual assault," according to the website.

Keep Reading Show less