• Tech Tech

Scientists make 'optimal' gene-editing breakthrough with sugarcane: 'Shows unique opportunities'

"This is the first peer-reviewed publication describing a field trial of CRISPR-edited sugarcane."

"This is the first peer-reviewed publication describing a field trial of CRISPR-edited sugarcane."

Photo Credit: Charles Keato/Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation

Sugarcane has received a genetic upgrade that could strengthen its standing as the world's largest crop by biomass yield while promoting its potential for renewable energy.

According to a report on Phys.org, scientists from the University of Florida's Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation optimized a sugarcane's leaf inclination angle to increase sunlight capture, thus improving its biomass production.

The study, published in Plant Biotechnology Journal, found that a hybrid of Saccharum officinarum and Saccharum spontaneum has the most "complex genome among all crops."

Each gene has several copies, making it difficult to enhance sugarcane through standard breeding practices. 

The researchers targeted LIGULELESS1, or LG1, which dictates the angle at which the plant's leaves grow. They used the CRISPR/Cas9 system to edit the 40 copies of LG1 that sugarcane's genome contains and fine-tuned the leaf angle by altering some of the copies.

"In some of the LG1 edited sugarcanes, we just mutated a few of the copies," said Fredy Altpeter, lead researcher and Professor of Agronomy at the University of Florida, as reported by Phys.org. "And in doing so, we were able to tailor the leaf architecture until we found the optimal angle that resulted in increased biomass yield."

The team discovered that a more upright leaf angle allowed more sunlight to penetrate the sugarcane canopy, leading to heavier and taller plants. The most productive line came from a crop with 12% of its LG1 copies edited, which produced a sugarcane with a 56% decrease in leaf inclination angle and an 18% hike in dry biomass yield.

Sugarcane is already responsible for 80% of the sugar and 40% of biofuel production in the world, per the Phys.org report. However, these findings show the potential of the crop to play an even larger role in renewable bioproducts and biofuels — all without the need for toxic fertilizers that could pollute water sources. 

The versatile plant has been used in everything from planet-friendly bricks for construction to plastic-free vinyls. One company is turning sugarcane into a more sustainable form of aviation fuel, and even Lego is incorporating it into its products.

"This is the first peer-reviewed publication describing a field trial of CRISPR-edited sugarcane," Altpeter added. "And this work also shows unique opportunities for the editing of polyploid crop genomes, where researchers can fine-tune a specific trait."

Join our free newsletter for weekly updates on the coolest innovations improving our lives and saving our planet.

Cool Divider