UPTON, NY Through work originally designed to remove contaminants from soil, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory and their Belgium colleagues at Hasselt University have identified plant-associated microbes that can improve plant growth on marginal land. The findings, published in the February 1, 2009 issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology, may help scientists design strategies for sustainable biofuel production that do not use food crops or agricultural land.
"Biofuels are receiving increased attention as one strategy for addressing the dwindling supplies, high costs, and environmental consequences of fossil fuels," said Brookhaven biologist and lead author Daniel (Niels) van der Lelie, who leads the Lab's biofuels research program. "But competition with agricultural resources is an important socioeconomic concern."
Ethanol produced by fermenting corn, for example, diverts an important food source and the land it's grown on for fuel production. A better approach would be to use non-food plants, ideally ones grown on non-agricultural land, for biofuel production.
Van der Lelie's team has experience with plants growing on extremely marginal soil soil contaminated with heavy metals and other industrial chemicals. In prior research, his group has incorporated the molecular "machinery" used by bacteria that degrade such contaminants into microbes that normally colonize poplar trees, and used the trees to clean up the soil. An added benefit, the scientists observed, was that the microbe-supplemented trees grew faster even when no contaminants were present.
"This work led to our current search for bacteria and the metabolic pathways within them that increase biomass and carbon sequestration in poplar trees growing on marginal soils, with the goal of further improving poplar for biofuel production on non-agricultural lands," said co-author Safiyh Taghavi. In the curr
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DOE/Brookhaven National Laboratory