UMass Amherst researchers work to improve camelina yields

By Erin Voegele | May 16, 2012

A team of researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst is working to significantly increase the oil yields of camelina with the goal of creating a commercially viable crop for biofuel production. The $2 million, two-phase project is supported by a $1.48 million grant from the U.S. DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), with the remaining funding contributed by UMass Amherst, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Council and partners at Washington State University, University of California, Berkeley and Metabolics Inc.

According to Danny Schnell, a professor in UMass Amherst’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the method the team is using is a coupled strategy that features biological engineering. “The first strategy is to modify photosynthesis in camelina to increase CO2 fixation, [which] would of course generate additional carbon,” he said. “In the second part of the project we are engineering the plant to divert that increased carbon into seed oil production.” To complete the first component of the strategy the team is modifying photosynthesis within the plant, using a mechanism derived from cyanobacteria and algae.

The goal of the work is to double the current maximum seed and fuel yield from the crop, Schnell said. If successful, the work could result in a variety of camelina that would require less than 1 million acres to generate 100 million gallons of oil for conversion into biofuels. The team is also aiming to increase the production of terpenes, which are precursors to many fuel and chemical products.

Information released by the university noted that the team will alter the genes within camelina’s chloroplasts rather than in the nucleus, which prevents the passage of genetic modifications to the plant’s next generation. Schnell added that changes are not passed down through pollen, eliminating the risk of genetic drift. In other words, the pollen of the modified plants will not be genetically modified.

The project will be completed in two phases, with phase one running for 18 months. “The intention is to demonstrate proof of principle of the approaches we are using,” Schnell said. “Then we are hoping to continue to phase two, which would be another 18 months.” At the end of the project, the team hopes to have created a commercially viable variety of camelina. 


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