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How Gene-Edited Sugarcane Could Reduce Society’s Environmental Footprint

Josh Falzone
March 19, 2019

Australia’s University of Queensland is currently conducting research on how gene editing could tailor sugarcane to efficiently produce bioplastics and biofuels.

From soda bottles to ethanol, researchers are testing multiple varieties of sugarcane that could be used in new applications that would help reduce society’s environmental footprint, and such biology-driven solutions could have a significant impact on our planet’s wellbeing.

Every year, 300 million tons of plastic is manufactured. Much of this is nonbiodegradable and petroleum-based, which causes greenhouse gases to be released into the air when produced. In addition, a lot of these harmful plastics end up in our oceans, where nearly 13 million tons of plastic are already floating. If sugarcane can be gene-edited and developed into a new bio-based plastic, it could present manufacturers and consumers with a viable replacement that is recyclable and breaks down naturally in the environment.

Petroleum-based plastics are just one component to the larger pollution problem at hand. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, transportation fuel is the largest contributor to greenhouse gases in the air, accounting for more than a quarter of total emissions in the United States alone. Looking beyond the U.S. borders, the world uses 50 million barrels per day of carbon-emitting fossil fuels to power our cars, planes, and ships.

However, one option that could help reduce the damaging effect of everyday transportation is the use of biofuels. Biofuels are produced from living matter, like corn (or potentially gene-edited sugarcane), and do not emit nearly as much carbon as traditional fuels. Robert Henry, a University of Queensland professor working on the sugarcane project and director of the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation, recently highlighted the importance and capability of gene-edited sugarcane:

“The industry must think beyond just producing sugar, to also producing electricity, biofuels for transportation and oils to replace traditional plastics.”

“It’s about reinventing sugarcane as a crop with a wider range of end uses, and sugarcane is ideal for renewables because it is fast-growing with abundant biomass.”

With biotechnology like gene editing, we now have the opportunity to replace destructive materials with environmentally friendly alternatives, and it’s important we encourage the development and use of these innovations so we can work together to improve the wellbeing of humans and Earth.

One way BIO is working to help amplify the efforts and potential of renewables is by providing a platform for companies, experts, industry leaders, and researchers to share ideas, technologies, and expertise as well as solicit investments for breakthroughs that could benefit our planet and society. At BIO’s 2019 World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and AgTech in Des Moines, Iowa on July 8-11, there will be two programs – Renewable Chemicals for a Sustainable Planet and New Frontiers in Bioenergy – that highlight how these sectors are providing solutions to the world’s most challenging issues related to pollution, climate change, air and water quality, and energy prices.

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