The troubled tobacco industry may be getting some good news for a change.

University of California scientists are engineering the tobacco plant to produce oils that, when extracted, can serve as drop-in biofuels to power airplanes, cars and other machines.

Research success would allow farmers who have been growing tobacco for generations to continue the tradition for a different purpose, while taking advantage of an infrastructure established to serve the diminishing cigarette, cigar and snuff markets.

Peggy G. Lemaux, UC Cooperative Extension specialist, and Anastasios Melis and Krishna Niyogi, Agricultural Experiment Station faculty in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology at UC Berkeley, are lead researchers in the project.

“There are several reasons we are modifying tobacco to produce biofuel,” Lemaux said, “It is a high biomass crop. If you want to extract oil, then the more biomass you have, the more oil you get. And, since tobacco is not a food source, tobacco production for biofuel would not have an impact on global food markets or find its way into the food supply. Finally, tobacco farmers are anxious to produce a product that is more acceptable to the public."

However, there are no tobacco varieties that produce oil at high levels. Scientists know that certain algae do turn sunlight energy into oil, and that sparked an idea.

A research consortium that includes Lemaux, Melis and Niyogi and researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Kentucky is taking genes, primarily from algae, that produce oil and inserting them into tobacco plants to make oils in leaves.

To do that, the consortium scientists are using very small pieces of tobacco leaves to introduce the desired algal genes, where they become a heritable trait of the tobacco plant. The small pieces of leaf tissue are then placed in a Petri dish, the tissues that contain the introduced genes identified, and then the tissues grow into a new plant, every cell of which contains the algal genes.

 “We hope the new plant will make the same kind of oils that algae do,” Lemaux said. “We can then use organic solvents to extract the oils out of the leaves.”

Much more research is required before tobacco plants that produce biofuel at commercial levels will be available to growers, but Lemaux is encouraged by the preliminary results.

The research is funded with a three-year $4.8 million grant from a U.S. Department of Energy, Advanced Research Projects Agency — Energy program termed PETRO, Plants Engineered to Replace Oil. ARPA-E funds high-risk, high-reward research projects to find potential alternatives to fossil fuels.

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