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MSU technology that converts plant fibers to biofuel commercialized

EAST LANSING, Mich. --- A Kansas company has licensed Michigan State University technology that uses enzymes from a microbe in a cow's stomach to create plants that can be more efficiently turned into biofuel.

Enzymes that allow a cow to digest grasses and other plant fibers can be used to turn fiber from other plants into simple sugars. Mariam Sticklen, MSU professor of crop and soil sciences, discovered a way to insert a gene from a bacterium in a cow's stomach into a corn plant so the fiber in corn leaves and stalks can be more easily converted into simple sugars. These sugars can then be fermented into biofuels or other valuable chemicals.

Edenspace Systems Corp., a plant biotechnology company that develops new crops for biofuels and environmental cleanup, expects to use the technology to release biofuel corn varieties directly to growers as well as sublicensing the technology to other companies that want to add the gene to their corn varieties. The company also will investigate using the technology in other biofuel crops such as sorghum, switchgrass and sugarcane.

"This technology is a step ahead for science, for technology and for producing fuel in our own country," Sticklen said.

"We're excited to start commercializing this technology," said Bruce Ferguson, president of Edenspace. "We've been collaborating with Dr. Sticklen on this research for the past four years. This is a very productive extension of that work."

Because of the regulations surrounding the release of transgenic crops, Ferguson estimated that it would take at least three years before the new biofuel varieties were available commercially.

Breaking down cellulose and hemicellulose (the fiber that makes plant leaves and stems rigid) into simple sugars that can be fermented into ethanol has been a key challenge for biofuel producers. Enzymes must be added to chopped plant material. This makes the process and the final biofuel product more costly. The fact that the breakdown process also is difficult to do efficiently also increases costs.

Sticklen's corn variety for biofuel production, Spartan Corn III, contains all three enzymes necessary to convert the cellulose in plant fiber into sugars that can be made into biofuel.

"We look forward to working with Edenspace to further develop and deploy this suite of important technologies," said Mike Poterala, executive director of MSU Technologies, which is responsible for commercializing MSU's technology portfolio and negotiated the license with Edenspace. "This is a very exciting development for MSU and the biofuel industry."


Contact: Jamie DePolo
Michigan State University

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