'Developing Cellulosic Biofuels' ICAR Keynote Lecture by Chris Somerville

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The 19th International Conference on Arabidopsis Research occured in Montreal, Canada from July 23 - 27. The 6 community-organized workshops were well-attended and included topics such as Plant Systems Biology, Phytohormone Signaling/Biosynthesis, Laser Microdissection, Proteomics, Bioinformatic Resources for Arabidopsis, and Annotation at TAIR/AraCyc. The conference opened with a keynote lecture by Chris Somerville, former director of Carnegie's Deparment of Plant Biology, on Developing Cellulosic Biofuels.Somerville is now director of the Energy Biosciences Institute.

Dr. Somerville notes that the efficient production of biofuels by biologically-based routes will require innovation in three main areas: production of feedstocks, conversion of feedstocks to sugars, and conversion of sugars to fuels.

At present, the main feedstocks being used for fuel production are corn starch and sugar from sugarcane. However, the demand for fuel vastly exceeds the amount that can be produced from these feedstocks so it is expected that gasoline and diesel replacements will ultimately be derived from cellulosic biomass.

Dr. Somerville sees that there are many opportunities to direct basic research on model organisms such as Arabidopsis directly toward outstanding problems related to bioenergy production.

He feels that most importantly, because agricultural productivity is the key to making arable land available for any other purpose, research that is directed toward improving our understanding of basic biological processes in higher plants should be viewed as fundamental to the development of biofuels and all other uses of higher plants.

Dr. Somerville concludes that current trends in federal funding for research that lead away from basic research on Arabidopsis are ill-conceived.