1. Towards a bioeconomy: energy, materials, climate change, food
"Plants are at the heart of the global challenges we are facing. There is no doubt about that." This conclusive statement was made by José Pío Beltrán, president of the European Plant Science Organization (EPSO). Some of these challenges were discussed by Luisa M. Trindade, associate professor at Wageningen University, in the Netherlands. These include transcendental aspects such as feeding a global population that is growing incessantly and obtaining the power we need sustainably, while mitigating climate change and the current loss of biodiversity.
According to Beltrán, "With today's technology we can't solve the challenges we are facing." At the same time, one thing seems clear: "The only way to do so is by investing in research." Some of what is being done today was presented during the debate, and the applications can be divided into several areas: biofuel, materials, climate change and food.
"With today's technology we can't solve the challenges we are facing, the only way to do so is by investing in research"
Bioethanol made from plants is a promising alternative energy source to gasoline, and is undoubtedly much more eco-friendly. To make it, you must follow a series of steps that change cellulose –found in plant cell walls– into sugars that can be fermented. But there are problems yet to be solved: right now one of the main sources is corn, which is not only not as efficient as it should be but also raises ethical questions, as crops that could be used for food are diverted to energy production. So, scientists are working on alternative sources and altering the make-up of plants to make them higher yield.
One of these alternatives are trees like poplars, as they are found naturally in abundance and their use doesn't cause any ethical dilemmas. The problem is that they have large amounts of lignin in their cellulose. Lignin is a polymer that makes them hard and rigid, but interferes with the process leading up to fermentation. Hannele Tuominen, associate professor at the Umeå Plant Science Centre in Sweden, is working with them through genetic engineering. "Our aim is to modify the chemistry of wood to make it easier to process lignin-cellulose," she said. This research has identified several genes involved in their composition and, so far, they've reached a point where they get "a lot more sugar, but also much slower tree growth."
This difficult balance is also the focus of work being done by the group led by Luisa M. Trindade, in this case trying to redesign and improve corn crops. By researching different genetic variants focusing on lignin and cellulose, they've created options that break down more easily and are more efficient, but also warned, "We must take into account that these variants can have an effect on crop yield."
There are many reasons to bank on biomaterials. The main one has to do with the environmental damage caused by using plastics, which has recently led to laws in France and New York prohibiting their use in various products. In fact, some plant fibers are already being used in bicycles and rackets, and there are also prototypes for cars and motorcycles based on these materials. "The carbon footprint (the amount of greenhouse gases emitted during manufacturing) for natural fibers is much smaller than other materials," explained Aart Willem van Vuure, professor at the University of Leuven, in Belgium. In fact, "Mechanically they have better properties than fiberglass," and aren’t far behind carbon fiber. The problem lies in the fact that they don't last as long and in the variability of the raw material, aspects scientists are working on. In this regard, Simon Hawkins, professor at Lille University, refers to one of the problems researchers run into: "We need the industry to come work on plant-fiber biology."
"Some plant fibers are already being used in bicycles and rackets, and there are also prototypes for cars and motorcycles based on these materials"
The possibilities for using plant fibers vary widely. They can even be applied in areas like construction. This has been demonstrated by Ana María Lacasta, professor at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, with examples like transparent wood, fiber used as thermal insulation and projects that aim to replace steel-based construction with bamboo. Based on its properties and possibilities, Lacasta does not hesitate to say that, on many occasions, "Nature does our job for us."
One of the main causes of global warming is industrial emissions of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide. This is the gas that plants use in photosynthesis, helping mitigate its effects while obtaining the energy they need. In this regard, Production Director at AlgaEnergy Federico Witt presented some of the projects the company is working on, which are based on massive microalgae farms. "One hectare of microalgae," he explained, "absorbs the same amount of carbon dioxide as 22 hectares of trees (approximately 33,000 units), and they can do so right at the source."
AlgaEnergy has several pilot plants where they are testing different types of algae and growth techniques, with the plus that the resulting product is higher value: algae can be used for agriculture, animal food and cosmetics. They can even be used to make biodiesel, although Witt recognizes, "At least for now, obtaining energy from microalgae isn’t a good business opportunity."
"One hectare of microalgae," he explained, "absorbs the same amount of carbon dioxide as 22 hectares of trees (approximately 33,000 units), and they can do so right at the source"
Rice is the most commonly consumed food in the world, but an estimated 75% of all crops are lost, mainly due to drought or high salt content. In order to tackle the challenge of feeding an incessantly growing population, researchers are looking to design varieties that are much more resistant.
One of these studies is led by Ari Sadanandom, professor at Durham University, in the United Kingdom. His group is working on untangling the mechanisms of a transgenic variety that over-expresses the OTS1 gene, making it overly tolerant to salt. Understanding these mechanisms would allow them to improve on them, reproducing their effects through added compounds and expanding them into other varieties.
What they've seen so far is that the resistance seems to be based on proteins called DELLAs, and specifically on the mechanisms that lead them to be eliminated or preserved. It is the crossroads between applied and basic research, with concepts like balance of proteins, autophagy and proteasomes. The other, extremely necessary, starts from debate.