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Biotechnology for Biofuels

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Genetically engineered biofuel crops, such as switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.), that produce their own cell wall-digesting cellulase enzymes would reduce costs of cellulosic biofuel production. To date, non-bioenergy plant models have been used in nearly all studies assessing the synthesis and activity of plant-produced fungal and bacterial cellulases. One potential source for cellulolytic enzyme genes is herbivorous insects adapted to digest plant cell walls. Here we examine the potential of transgenic switchgrass-produced TcEG1 cellulase from Tribolium castaneum (red flour beetle). This enzyme, when overproduced in Escherichia coliand Saccharomyces cerevisiae, efficiently digests cellulose at optima of 50 °C and pH 12.0.


TcEG1 that was produced in green transgenic switchgrass tissue had a range of endoglucanase activity of 0.16–0.05 units (µM glucose release/min/mg) at 50 °C and pH 12.0. TcEG1 activity from air-dried leaves was unchanged from that from green tissue, but when tissue was dried in a desiccant oven (46 °C), specific enzyme activity decreased by 60%. When transgenic biomass was “dropped-in” into an alkaline buffer (pH 12.0) and allowed to incubate at 50 °C, cellobiose release was increased up to 77% over non-transgenic biomass. Saccharification was increased in one transgenic event by 28%, which had a concurrent decrease in lignin content of 9%. Histological analysis revealed an increase in cell wall thickness with no change to cell area or perimeter. Transgenic plants produced more, albeit narrower, tillers with equivalent dry biomass as the control.


This work describes the first study in which an insect cellulase has been produced in transgenic plants; in this case, the dedicated bioenergy crop switchgrass. Switchgrass overexpressing the TcEG1 gene appeared to be morphologically similar to its non-transgenic control and produced equivalent dry biomass. Therefore, we propose TcEG1 transgenics could be bred with other transgenic germplasm (e.g., low-lignin lines) to yield new switchgrass with synergistically reduced recalcitrance to biofuel production. In addition, transgenes for other cell wall degrading enzymes may be stacked with TcEG1 in switchgrass to yield complementary cell wall digestion features and complete auto-hydrolysis.


This article was published openly thanks to the University of Tennessee Open Publishing Support Fund.

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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