A team led by researchers at the University of Illinois is using recent advances in plant biotechnology to increase sugarcane's geographic range, boost its photosynthetic rate and turn it into an oil-producing crop for biodiesel production.
The team introduced genes into the sugarcane that boost natural oil production in the plant's stems to about 1.5%. While it sounds small, this means that a sugarcane field would produce about 50& more oil per acre than a soybean field.
The team hopes to eventually increase the oil content of sugarcane stems to about 20%.
The researchers then used genetic engineering to increase the photosynthetic efficiency of sugarcane (and also sorghum) by 30%.
They are now crossing the sugarcane with Miscanthus, a related perennial grass that can grow as far north as Canada. The new hybrid is more cold-tolerant than sugarcane, but further crosses are needed to restore the other attributes of the sugarcane while preserving its cold-tolerance.
The researchers believe that their cold-tolerant, oil-producing sugarcane could meet 147% of the US mandate for renewable fuels – much of it growing on land which is currenly abandoned.