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Genetically Enhanced Sorghum and Sugarcane

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC)
ARPA-E Award: 
Champaign, IL
Project Term: 
02/15/2012 to 03/31/2017
Project Status: 
Technical Categories: 
Graphic of UIUC's technology
Critical Need: 

Biofuels offer renewable alternatives to petroleum-based fuels that reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to nearly zero. However, traditional biofuels production is limited not only by the small amount of solar energy that plants convert through photosynthesis into biological materials, but also by inefficient processes for converting these biological materials into fuels. Farm-ready, non-food crops are needed that produce fuels or fuel-like precursors at significantly lower costs with significantly higher productivity. To make biofuels cost-competitive with petroleum-based fuels, biofuels production costs must be cut in half.

Project Innovation + Advantages: 

The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) is working to convert sugarcane and sorghum--already 2 of the most productive crops in the world--into dedicated bio-oil crop systems. Three components will be engineered to produce new crops that have a 50% higher yield, produce easily extractable oils, and have a wider growing range across the U.S. This will be achieved by modifying the crop canopy to better distribute sunlight and increase its cold tolerance. By directly producing oil in the shoots of these plants, these biofuels could be easily extracted with the conventional crushing techniques used today to extract sugar.

Potential Impact: 

If successful, UIUC's project will enable some of the most productive crops to be grown for biofuels in new climates and on land unsuited to food crops. This could lead to more large-scale production of renewable biofuels to replace petroleum-based fuels.


The transportation sector accounts for nearly all of our petroleum imports. Providing an advanced biofuels alternative to petroleum will allow the U.S. to reduce these imports, improving our energy independence.


More than 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. come from the transportation sector. Because plants naturally absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, the level of greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels is less than half that of petroleum fuels.


The U.S. imports nearly $1 billion in petroleum each day, accounting for the single largest factor in our trade balance with the rest of the world. Biofuels can be produced domestically, allowing us to keep more dollars at home.

Innovation Update: 
(As of March 2017) 
Triacyl-glycerol (TAG) could be extracted from the Illinois team’s oilcane using existing crushing technologies for sugar extraction. Based on current lipid processing technologies, this oil could be converted into biodiesel more cheaply than from a soy feedstock, and the remaining sugar in the cane could be converted into ethanol at a comparable cost to corn. At a level of just 2% TAG, oilcane would yield more biodiesel than soy on a per-acre basis because of the high productivity of sugarcane. Based on metabolic modeling, the Illinois team expects to reach 20% TAG. Illinois’ photosynthesis traits have the potential to generally increase productivity in both fuel and food crops, earning a $25M grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to utilize these traits in food crops. To move the most promising traits demonstrated in the PETRO project towards a first market, the Illinois team has partnered with Syngenta to validate the performance of Illinois’ transgenic surgarcane in the company’s phenotyping facilities. If successful, Syngenta would license the traits and incorporate them into its commercial maize and sugarcane varieties for large-scale deployment.

The Illinois team proposed to develop a bioenergy crop by engineering sugarcane to (1) increase cold tolerance, (2) increase photosynthetic efficiency, and (3) accumulate energy-dense triacylglycerol (TAG) molecules instead of sugar. While the optimal energy cane plant would contain all three traits, the Illinois team chose to characterize each trait separately due to the long generation time in producing transgenic sugarcane. The first two traits have the potential to increase the yield of one of the most productive crops on the planet and enable deployment in the United States, but the oil-producing trait remains critical to converting sugarcane into a bioenergy crop, as there are existing markets for sugar that are currently more valuable than fuel. To that end, the team successfully introduced metabolic pathways responsible for TAG accumulation in the seeds of oilseed plants and isolated sugarcane lines containing up to 8% TAG by dry weight in their leaves—more than 200 times that observed in wild cane. The three desired traits can be stacked together through traditional breeding, which is likely necessary to generate a single line that accumulates the program goal of 20% TAG by dry weight and a yield of 30 tons per hectare.
For a detailed assessment of the UIUC project and impact, please click here.

ARPA-E Program Director: 
Dr. Joe Cornelius
Project Contact: 
Prof. Stephen Long
University of Nebraska, Lincoln
Brookhaven National Laboratory
University of Florida
Release Date: