A research team at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) BioEnergy Science Center (BESC) has isolated the gene that controls the amount of ethanol production a microorganism is capable of. Isolating the gene, which is called clostridium thermocellum, could allow scientists to experiment with altering a part of the microorganism’s DNA to make it produce more ethanol from a single plant. Currently, ethanol requires an expensive enzyme, a lot of water and a lot of land to create sufficient amounts of energy. With this latest discovery, scientists could engineer plants that make ethanol to produce larger amounts with fewer resources.

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The Department of Energy relies on the scientific discoveries of its labs and research centers to improve the production of clean energy sources,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu. “This discovery is an important step in developing biomass crops that could increase yield of ethanol, lower production costs and help reduce our reliance on imported oil.”

Previously, the issue with ethanol — and most other biofuel production processes — was the release of sugars within the plant that form the base of the fuel. Plants that produce ethanol and other biofuels are naturally hardy and releasing those sugars is difficult, but with this discovery, scientists could engineer the plants’ DNA to be easier to break down. Scientists have been studying clostridium thermocellum for decades but have been unable to isolate this specific gene before. This BESC study was just released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and could be the key to a future of plant-driven transportation systems.

+ The Department of Energy