Scientists look to tobacco leaves for biofuel

This post was contributed by Piper Corp, ESA Science Policy Analyst

In a recent Plant Biotechnology Journal paper, scientists at Thomas Jefferson University’s Biotechnology Foundation Laboratories say that genetically modified tobacco “has the potential to produce more energy per hectare than any other non-food crop.”

Tobacco Field in Pinar del Rio, Cuba
Tobacco Field in Pinar del Rio, Cuba
Photo Credit: Henryk Kotowski

Biofuel oil is typically pressed from seeds, rather than leaves or stems. Although tobacco plants are high in leaves and low in seeds, the seeds they do produce are quite oily. By shifting oil production and accumulation into the plants’ leaves, the researchers say they could significantly increase the oil production of standard leaves, in most cases doubling it, but in some cases achieving outputs up to 20 times higher.

The paper discusses two different genetic modifications-one to increase oil production and one to increase accumulation. So far, researchers have not investigated the cumulative impact of making both modifications on a single plant. Even so, even one of the modifications (if done at a large scale) could make tobacco a significant source of biofuel-existing research indicates that engineered tobacco plants would produce at least twice as much biodiesel per hectare as soybeans. And since tobacco is abundant in more than 100 countries, the authors believe widespread deployment is well within reach.

But since most biofuel oil currently comes from seeds, extracting it from leaves could present a challenge for commercial production. Once perfected, though, the process could have a number of added bonuses: extracting oil from leaves would yield glycerin as a byproduct, and fermenting the processed leaves would produce ethanol.

Andrianov, V., Borisjuk, N., Pogrebnyak, N., Brinker, A., Dixon, J., Spitsin, S., Flynn, J., Matyszczuk, P., Andryszak, K., Laurelli, M., Golovkin, M., & Koprowski, H. (2009). Tobacco as a production platform for biofuel: overexpression of and genes increases accumulation and shifts the composition of lipids in green biomass Plant Biotechnology Journal DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-7652.2009.00458.x

Author: Piper Corp

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