Plant Cells Yield Countless Biomass Applications

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory at Iowa State University will use $1.02 million in DOE funding to begin understanding the chemical processes that take place within the cells of plants. This new field, called metabolomics, could result in harnessing plants to efficiently produce biomass for energy production, chemicals and materials for industry or pharmaceuticals, and untold thousands of other uses.

“We know a lot about the genetic make-up of many plants, but we know very little about the chemical changes that take place within plant cells that eventually produce sugars, fibers or waxes,” said Ed Yeung, program director of Chemical and Biological Sciences at Ames Lab and principal investigator on the project. “If we can understand metabolism, then ideally, all the materials a plant produces can be controlled.” The project, Mass Spectrometric Imaging of Plant Metabolites, combines the analytical chemistry expertise of Ames Laboratory with the strength of ISU’s Plant Sciences Institute. Yeung, a distinguished professor of chemistry at ISU, is internationally recognized for his work in developing separation and detection technologies, having won four R&D 100 awards. Funding from the Chemical Sciences, Geosciences and Biosciences Division of the DOE’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences provides $340,000 for operation and equipment this year and another $680,000 in 2006. Additional money is expected in 2007 and could continue if the program receives good marks during a peer review scheduled for 2008.