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An article by Bioen Program researchers forecasts multiplication of sugarcane productivity

eduardo cesarA scientific article on the potential of sugarcane for the production of bioenergy, by a group of researchers from the University of São Paulo and from the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center (HARC) awakened unexpected interest among researchers. Published in the April 2010 issue of the Plant Biotechnology Journal, the study reviews the literature on the subject and produces an unprecedented theoretical calculation showing how much sugarcane might yield if biotechnological tools are used to create new varieties. Current productivity (80 tons per hectare/year, on average) might reach as much as 381 tons per hectare/year with the development of varieties specifically developed to produce bioenergy and endowed, for instance, with high productivity, high sugar content, and resistance to drought, blights and diseases. The so-called “power plant” must grow fast, require little in the way of inputs for its growth, and be compatible with mechanized harvesting. To work this out, the study associates technological sugarcane production data with plant physiology information (photosynthesis, growth, development and ripening) and functional genomics (expression of the genes that involve the partition of carbon, which is how sugarcane distributes the carbohydrates that it produces via photosynthesis).

A recent letter to the authors from the editor of Plant Biotechnology Journal, biologist Keith J. Edwards from Bristol University, in England, informed them that more than 1.6 thousand downloads of the article had been recorded, a very high number for such a specialized journal, and encouraged them to submit “other high-quality manuscripts” for publication. The interest in the article reveals a new level of sugarcane research, notes Glaucia Souza, the article’s main author, a professor at USP’s Institute of Chemistry and one of the coordinators of Bioen, the FAPESP Program of Research on Bioenergy. “A few years ago we had difficulty publishing articles on sugarcane biotechnology, because it was regarded as an exotic plant that only grew in semi-tropical areas. Today, as many countries are trying to develop energy from biomass, sugarcane studies are becoming more important,” she states. Another point is that the genes discovered in the studies conducted may be introduced in other plants, enabling cultivation to be expanded.

Glaucia says that the article’s popularity also shows that the Bioen Program is advancing in the field of genetic improvement. “We’re managing to get the genome out in the field. We’re validating in cultivars the discovery of genes linked to the sucrose content described in prior articles,” she added. An earlier article that associated genes with sucrose content had already been classified as highly accessed, the researcher comments. “We did an unusual thing in this article, which was to combine the analysis of the plant’s physiology with technological data, and we proposed an improvement path using transgenics. The traditional improvement programs were not qualified to do this Bioen thing,” states Glaucia. “With this program, we joined forces. The ‘moleculars’ and the ‘improvement-oriented’ scientists are helping each other to understand fundamental aspects of sugarcane.”

Scientific article
WACLAWOVSKY, A.J. et al. Sugarcane for bioenergy production: an assessment of yield and regulation of sucrose content. Plant Biotechnology Journal. v. 8, 263-76. Published online on 19 Feb. 2010.