Bioenergy crops

Image: Jon Sullivan/Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Jon Sullivan/Wikimedia Commons.

And more from the UK Plant Science Federation (UKPSF) conference (18th and 19th April, 2012, John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK). Iain Donnison (Institute of Biological Environmental & Rural Sciences, Aberystwyth University) regaled us with insights into the energy biomass potential of Miscanthus.

OK, exploiting plants in this way is not a new idea, but what was underlined was the need for basic plant biology work, e.g. identifying ‘better’ taxa as energy crops, which requires collection in China, Japan and Taiwan, and assessment of the many plant traits such as architecture and number of tillers that all contribute to overall bioenergy potential of the crop; i.e. it is not a single botanical speciality topic – experts from many different disciplines are needed to deliver the desired outcome, but which work should be boosted by Xue-Feng Ma et al.’s high-resolution map of M. sinensis (PLoS ONE 7(3): e33821. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0033821).

On a related issue, Alison Smith (University of Cambridge) considered microalgae as bioenergy crops; her angle was a more ‘ecological’ one, which also emphasised the need for a multi-discipline approach to such energy security work. Many algae need an external supply of vitamin B12 (i.e. they are auxotrophs), which is usually supplied in nature by bacteria. Although bacterial contamination of algal cultures is usually considered anathema (axenia is usually the order of the day!), Smith’s work has explored co-cultivation – of algae and bacteria – systems, which are likely to improve overall productivity of the algal crop, and has led to development of the notion of ‘synthetic ecology’.