Researchers at the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Oklahoma have reported a genetic discovery that allows individual plants to produce more biomass. This means that biofuel crops could have higher yields without increasing their agricultural footprint.

Dr Huanzhong Wang has discovered a gene that controls the production of lignin within the stems of arabidopsis and medicago truncatula, plants that are commonly used in genetic studies.

Lignin is a compound that adds strength to plant cell walls, which gives stems their rigidity. When the gene was removed, there was a marked increase in the production of lignin and other biomass throughout the plants’ stems.

"In switchgrass, as the plant matures, the stem becomes hollow like bamboo," said division director, Richard Dixon. "Imagine if you use this discovery to fill that hollow portion with lignin. The potential increase in biomass in these new plants could be dramatic. This technology could make plants better suited to serve as renewable energy sources or as renewable feedstocks to produce advanced composite materials that consumers depend on every day."

Until now, most genetic research regarding lignin has tried to lessen its production, in order to make grazing crops more palatable for livestock.