October 22, 2007

Researchers look to create biodiesel soybean lines

by K.C. Jaehnig


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CARBONDALE, Ill. — With a few molecular tweaks, U.S. soybeans could help reduce America's need for foreign fuel oil.

Work going on now at the Illinois Soybean Center, a research facility at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, aims to produce an oilier bean designed specifically for the biodiesel industry. Analyzing beans developed at SIUC with new, high-tech equipment, University researchers have discovered two genetic regions that, along with three others previously found, contain genes controlling as much as 10 percent of the beans' oil content.

Using technology to pinpoint the genes so breeders can include them in new breeding lines could boost seeds' total oil content from 20 percent up to 30 percent. David A. Lightfoot, a biotechnologist heading that effort, anticipates SIUC will release its first biodiesel lines to breeders sometime in 2008.

"We have all seen the upward trend in fuel prices," Lightfoot said.

"It's inevitable that we will go that way (toward increased usage of sustainable fuels). The job of science is to put technology on the shelf so it will be ready when we need it."

Breeding for higher energy oils in soybean reverses 30 years of tradition, Lightfoot noted.

"That type of oil has been 'Public Enemy No. 1' for breeders since it was determined to be the major source of 'off' flavor in cooking," he said.

"Major companies have eliminated almost all of the oil from their seed."

While Lightfoot works to produce a bean with more energy, colleague Yong Gao, an SIUC chemist, is tinkering with a way to keep soy-based fuels from freezing at low temperatures. The pair are collaborating with an eye to attracting federal money from the defense department, where officials have expressed interest in using sustainable fuels. Gao already has discovered a means of turning used cooking oil into biodiesel in the lab and has started a company to help make the move into full-scale production.

"The connectivity between science and engineering is really playing out in this sustainability issue," Lightfoot said.

"The U.S. Department of Energy is predicting the energy gap will grow; the major hope for solving it is biotechnology. We need a 50 percent increase in use of biofuels and a 50 percent increase in the fuels themselves (to narrow the gap). It will take many scientists from many disciplines to produce those increases, but this project is one step in that direction."

While beans grown for fuel may add a new market for crops, farmers need to know they may differ from those grown for human and animal use. A plant that stores up energy in its beans rather than expending it on, say, producing more of them may not yield as much as conventional cultivars.

"We don't know that — we haven't measured it — but based on theoretical biochemistry, there might be yield depression, because that higher energy content has to come from somewhere," Lightfoot said.

"On the other hand, maybe the plant just is not using all the energy available to it. Maybe it's wasting energy and can produce seed with 30 percent high-energy oil content without reducing yield."

Should yields suffer with an oilier bean, farmers could compensate by growing beans intended for the biodiesel market on less productive land — the so-called "set aside." But perhaps they won't have to make that oil-yield trade-off.

The University's soybean breeding program generates some 100,000 "parents" with new genetic traits each year, including a number of "mutant" beans created through chemical changes induced by SIUC biotechnologist Khalid Meksem,

"We are talking now about using Dr. Meksem's mutant soybeans," Lightfoot said.

"Some are even higher in oil content than our best bean, but they are lower in yield. In the next phase of this project, we want to get his oil and our yield combined. With the right natural variations, the right mutations and the right technology, we could even get to the point where we could specify oil content. Then we'd be growing beans for particular uses rather than growing them as commodities in bulk which have to be expensively modified post harvest."

Lightfoot cautioned, however, that Americans not see biofuels as THE solution to energy problems.

"We can't grow all our fuel, whether it's biodiesel or ethanol — we also need to reduce our consumption," he said.

"But if we can combine alternative fuel production made from crops grown on marginal lands with a significant reduction in energy use made possible by our technologies, we could approach sustainability."


Beans to burn — In his lab at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, biotechnologist David A. Lightfoot (left) and graduate student Charles Yesudas discuss their discovery of soybean genes that increase the seeds' oil content and energy value. Such oil could make the use of biodiesel possible not just in cars and trucks but in ships and submarines, too.

Photo provided