Michigan State professor explores oil-rich rutabagas

By Ron Kotrba | October 14, 2008
The word "rutabaga" had never been used in biodiesel feedstock vernacular until Michigan State University Professor Christoph Benning began studying genetically modified rutabagas as a potential oil source. The implications of his work on the cold-resistant root crop suitable for northern climates, could be huge.

Oilseed plants produce oils in seeds that are developed in very short time period in a plant's life cycle. "If you look at a root crop-sugar beets or rutabagas-they photosynthate into biomass during the entire growing season," Benning said, so the idea is to genetically modify rutabagas to produce oil instead of starch in green and root tissues. This would produce more oil throughout the whole life cycle of the plant instead of just during seed development. "I was looking for a plant that was a close relative of the arabidopsis-one that had a big, starchy storage organ," he said. The arabidopsis plant was the first flowering plant to have its entire genetic code sequenced. This led him to the rutabaga, which is the same species as canola and rapeseed.

Benning's work involves expressing a gene called Wrinkled1 found in mutant arabidopsis plants. The gene controls carbohydrate metabolism and has been shown to increase oil yield in canola seeds. Benning inserted it into rutabagas to prevent starch production, yet promote oil biosynthesis. Between 30 and 50 modified rutabagas are growing in a greenhouse now, and results are expected soon. "If we can convert all the starch to oil, we're talking about a potential of a two- or three-fold [oil] yield increase," he said.
Rutabagas yield approximately 20 tons per acre, 80 percent of which is water weight. On a dry-matter basis, an acre yields approximately four tons, half being starch. So, if two tons of starch per acre are converted to oils, this equates to roughly 525 gallons of oil per acre compared with 160 gallons of oil yield per acre from canola. "If this thing works, it could be the end of canola because everything we could do with canola, we could do better with rutabagas," he said.
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