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Metabolic engineering makes plants produce more oils

By Paul Grad |

A research team from the University of Western Australia (Perth; www.uwa.edu.au), led by professor Dongke Zhang, has pioneered the application of higher plants for new-generation biofuel production. Metabolic engineering of Arabidopsis thaliana — a small flowering plant native to Europe and Asia, which was the first plant to have its genome sequenced — caused the plant to produce triterpene hydrocarbons. The team cloned a gene — a triterpene methyltransferase 3 (BbTMT-3) — from the microalga Botryococcus braunii and transferred it to Arabidopsis thaliana. The microalga can produce extracellular oil in the form of triterpenoid hydrocarbons up to 40 wt.% (dry). These hydrocarbons with chain lengths of C30 to C40, which include botryococcene, squalene and methylated squalenes, are suitable for producing liquid transport fuels and petrochemical alternatives. However, commercial-scale production of the alga is hampered by its slow growth rate. Other fast-growing microalgae and terrestrial plants do not accumulate triterpene hydrocarbons, because squalene, a key metabolite of the plant’s triterpene pathway, is rapidly converted to downstream products. Squalene (C30H50) is the starting molecule for all triterpenoids…
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