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DOE scientists report possible biofuels breakthrough

11 Aug 2011, 10.01 pm GMT

Washington, 11 August (Argus) — US government scientists believe they may have discovered the “missing link” that would enable biofuels makers to produce higher concentrations of ethanol at lower costs, the US Energy Department said today.

Researchers at the Energy Department's BioEnergy Science Center have pinpointed a single gene on a microbe known as “clostridium thermocellum,” which controls a micro-organism's ethanol producing capacity.

That discovery could prove to be the breakthrough discovery the biofuels industry has been waiting for to propel development of a new generation of biofuels.

“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,” US energy secretary Steven Chu said.

With this discovery, biofuels scientists would be able to experiment with genetically altering plants to produce higher ethanol yields.

Efforts to produce biofuels from switchgrass and farm waste have been stymied by the need to use expensive enzymes to break down the plant's barriers guarding energy-rich sugars.

The new discovery could allow scientists to create their own, tailor-made micro-organisms that would unlock a plant's sugars and ferment them in a single step, the Energy Department said. Identifying the gene responsible for controlling ethanol production is a first step toward making these designer micro-organisms.

The Energy Department said the new invention is available for licensing. The researchers' discovery is detailed in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The BioEnergy Science Center is led by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

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