U.S. Will Decode Soybean DNA to Ramp Up Biodiesel Production

WASHINGTON, DC, January 17, 2006 (ENS) - Two U.S. federal government departments have joined forces to decode the DNA of the soybean as a prelude to using the bean to make biodiesel fuel. The sequencing of the soybean genome is the first project resulting from a new agreement between the Departments of Energy and Agriculture to share resources and coordinate the study of plant and microbial genomics.

"This agreement demonstrates a joint commitment to support high-quality genomics research and integrated projects to meet the nation’s agriculture and energy challenges,” said Dr. Colien Hefferan, administrator of Agriculture Department's Cooperative State Research, Extension and Economics Service (CSREES), who signed the agreement for the USDA.

s "Both agencies will leverage their expertise and synergize activities involving agricultural and energy related plants and microbes," said Dr. Ari Patrinos, associate director of science for biological and environmental research with the Energy Department.

"We will enhance coordination of proposed sequencing projects through the Biological and Environmental Research Microbial Sequencing Program or the Joint Genome Institute's Community Sequencing Program," Patrinos said.

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Used around the world for food and animal feed, soybeans can be used to make biodiesel fuel. (Photo courtesy Park Seed)
The soybean, Glycine max, is the world’s most valuable legume crop. It is of particular interest to the Energy Department because it is a source of biodiesel, a renewable fuel. Biodiesel has the highest energy content of any alternative fuel and is more environmentally friendly than comparable petroleum fuels, since it degrades rapidly in the environment.

Biodiesel burns more cleanly than petroleum fuels, releasing only half of the pollutants and reducing the production of carcinogenic compounds by more than 80 percent.

Over 3.1 billion bushels of soybeans were grown in the United States on nearly 75 million acres in 2004, with an estimated annual value exceeding $17 billion, second only to corn and about twice that of wheat.

The Department of Energy said Monday that its Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, California will be the lead facility in sequencing the soy genome. To date, the Institute has sequenced and released a total of 150 microbial organisms.

Joint Genome Institute Director Eddy Rubin, M.D., Ph.D., said his institute is playing a key role in "translational genomics," that is, "applying the tools of DNA sequencing and molecular biology to contributing to the development of new avenues for clean energy generation and for crop improvement."

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Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, California (Photo courtesy DOE)
"Effective application of translational genomics to soybean requires detailed knowledge of the plant's genetic code," Rubin said. "With this starting material in hand, researchers in academia, industry and agriculture will be better positioned to optimize soybean for the broadest range of uses."

The soybean genome is about 1.1 billion base pairs in size, less than half the size of the corn or human genomes.

The DOE Joint Genome Institute, supported by the DOE Office of Science, unites the expertise of five national laboratories, Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Pacific Northwest, along with the Stanford Human Genome Center to advance genomics in support of the DOE mission related to clean energy generation and environmental characterization and cleanup.

The new partnership of the Energy and Agriculture Departments to undertake biotech development is part of a broad push by the federal government and private industry to move the country away from a petrolem based economy.

Last week in Honolulu, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) hosted the first Pacific Rim Summit on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy to explore the third wave in biotechnology – industrial and environmental biotechnology - the use of life science technologies to improve manufacturing processes.

“Biotechnology is creating a new industrial revolution based on biology instead of petroleum. As biotech processes replace old rust belt technologies, they are enabling a transformation from a petroleum-based economy to a biobased economy,” said Brent Erickson, executive vice president of BIO’s Industrial and Environmental Section.

But where bioindustrialists see a cleaner, greener world - environmentalists and many farmers see danger. They fear the patenting of life forms such as varieties of taro so they become the property of corporations. They fear that genetically modified organisms will escape into the environment from the many test fields across the country, and especially in Hawaii, which has more than any other state.

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Organic coffee from a farm on the Island of Hawaii. More field trials of genetically modified plants are taking place in Hawaii than in any other state. (Photo courtesy Organic Holidays)
The Hawaii Organic Farmers Association has adopted a policy that seeks to ensure that liability for any external costs to individuals, and the environment caused by physical spillover effects, such as genetic contamination from pollen drift, must be borne by the manufacturers and distributors of genetically engineered products.

Jim Greenwood, a former Pennsylvania Congressman and state senator, is president of BIO. He told ENS that he believes, "Biotechnology is the most transformational human endeavor, ever."

"What could be anti-environmental about trying to figure out how to produce the energy that we all consume in a sustainable way that doesn't produce the greenhouse gas emissions that produce global warming? We're on the side of the angels on that one."

"Biocompanies are all about trying to figure out to alter the way that we manufacture things using smart technology employing enzymes instead of some of the toxic chemicals that we have been using for decades," said Greenwood.

Regardless of the concerns of organic farmers, the U.S. federal government is jumpstarting bioindustrial development with a new purchasing program. Authorized by the 2002 Farm Bill, the government has established an initial list of six biotech products that government agencies will purchase including urethane roof coatings, hydraulic fluids, diesel fuel additives, bedding and towels.

Researchers other national labs are already at work developing bioindustrial products. Scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory are working with researchers at Archer Daniels Midland Company to make a separative bioreactor that efficiently turns sugar from corn into valuable chemicals. The technology could help bio-based chemicals replace large amounts of petrochemicals, helping reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, benefiting rural economies and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the lab says.

The two year joint research effort will evaluate and optimize the production of gluconic acid using the separative bioreactor. Eventually, the technology could extend beyond gluconic acid to the production of a variety of organic acids and polyols, which form the chemical building blocks for plastics, pharmaceuticals and other consumer products.