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A novel genetic modification to plants could make advanced biofuels more competitive with fossil fuels, according to a study published this week in the journal Science. The modification could achieve this by rendering an expensive step in making such biofuels unnecessary.

Currently almost all ethanol production comes from the sugar and starch in sugarcane and corn grain. Producing biofuels from biomass remains too expensive to be competitive, partly because the current method for freeing up the cellulose from lignin, the substance that gives plants woody properties, is to treat biomass with hot acid. This step is expensive in part because it requires specialized equipment that can withstand the acid.

In the new work, researchers discovered that when they eliminated a key gene responsible for how lignin is formed, plants produced far less of the substance. They then showed that 80 percent of the cellulose in these modified plants could be converted to sugar without treating them with acid. In comparison, in untreated, ordinary plants, only 18 percent of the cellulose could be converted.

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