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Wednesday, 05 October 2011 11:33

LRC staff busy harvesting special triticale crop

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By Jamie Woodford
For a once failed food crop, (and without much success as a feed crop either) triticale is fast becoming the next big thing in agriculture.
The vigourous rye-wheat hybrid is not only resistant to most plant disease, it also has a high drought tolerance.
Even more impressive, scientists at the Lethbridge Research Centre have made huge strides in the plant’s potential for industrial uses.

The latest harvest of triticale went well, said research scientist Dr. André Laroche, adding it even matured a bit earlier than some of the wheat varieties.

Although triticale is mostly known for its potential to produce biofuels, Laroche pointed out the plant has many more applications than researchers first thought.

“The sky’s the limit,” he said.

“(Triticale) is very good for biofuel, but if we can move up the starch content by a few per cent, that means that it would be a better yield and increased yield in ethanol production,” he said.

As a result, triticale could gain a higher commercial value, creating more competition among other cereal grains.

Laroche explained cereals have a long starch and a short starch molecule, and research has shown triticale with a short starch molecule is easier to extract sugar from, which allows scientists to further improve the transformation of the starch to create other bio-products.

To do this, scientists have mapped out the triticale genome that is five times larger than the human genome.

“Now we have a catalogue of most of the genes of the plant, so now when we go into our catalogue we look for the genes which are responsible for the starch production — there are many —  and now we can ask the question: what would happen if we interrupt this gene?” said Laroche.

Research has shown stopping one or two of these genes increase the proportion of shorter starch, “which is very exciting.”

Now scientists are faced with the task to refine how to stop the production of these genes to determine the final impact on the seed and the starch content and eventually stabilize the variety of triticale with a high starch content. Essentially, the more starch it can produce gives more bang for the producer’s buck.

“These lines, in a few years, could enter a commercial stream as a line that would have some economic advantage,” he said.

One of those advantages is using the plant to produce biodegradable plastics.

Laroche said starch could replace petroleum as a starting material for plastic grocery bags that currently takes between 20 to 1,000 years to decompose.

In some parts of the world, biodegradable plastic bags already exist, but it’s not an ideal process.

“At this point in time, the starch from the plant is still a little bit more expensive than the petroleum precursor molecule, but as the price of petroleum goes up in a few years it will be highly competitive,” he said.

In the meantime, scientists are working on creating more economical varieties of triticale where starch content is increased to create even better plastics than are available today. Plastics that won’t take centuries to break down, not to mention better physical properties, and possibly more tear resistant.

“If we improve the plant composition ... we can modify the starch or we can add enzymes that will help the digestion of the starch in small sugar molecules, and from there, these small sugar molecules could go into a chemical pathway to produce new products or the starch could be used directly to produce some cheaper plastics,” explained Laroche.

Or, the sugar molecules could go into a small sugar pathway to produce new polymers, “that will have great physical strength,” he said. “Very strong, impossible to tear — they could be stretchable.”

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