The U.S Department of Energy has recently provided funding for development of a new strain of a popular tree species that can perform nocturnal photosynthesis. The sum of $14 million has been given to a team of biofuel researchers led by the University of Nevada.
The project is called “Engineering CAM Photosynthetic Machinery into Bioenergy Crops for Biofuels Production in Marginal Environments” and it also involves teams from University of Liverpool, Newcastle University, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
What might seem as a huge amount to some, it can make a big difference for the biofuel industry. Nocturnal photosynthesis (a.k.a Crassulacean acid metabolism- CAM) has been first observed during the 1950s by UK researchers at Newcastle University.
They noticed that certain desert plants absorb carbon dioxide at night, as opposed to any other plants. This process is driven by the extreme temperatures during daytime, when if a plant opens their pores as in normal photosynthesis, water would be lost. Prickly pear, agave and other desert plants, store CO2 and use it during the day when light is available.
A key advantage of these plants is the fact that they are not used as a food source. They can be grown in areas prone to droughts and unsuitable for cultivation of food crops. The tree that is the subject of interest is known as “Poplar.” It tolerates dry conditions, does not require nutrient-rich soils, and grows relatively quickly. Additionally, it is also tested as a soil remediation plant to remove contaminants from soils.
Unfortunately, Poplar tree does not have the “nocturnal photosynthesis” mechanism, and this is where the grant comes in. At Oregon State University, scientists are already working on the much-needed genetic modification to create the new type of Poplar species. Additional to the ability to perform nocturnal photosynthesis, these trees will have increased root mass in order to perform soil conservation and remediation.