Advanced Bioengineering for Biofuels

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OPEN 2015
Knoxville, Tennessee
Project Term:
02/04/2016 - 02/03/2020

Critical Need:

The U.S. transportation system is hugely reliant on petroleum, a resource that accounts for 42% of U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Low- or zero-carbon fuel alternatives, like biofuel, can reduce harmful emissions while diversifying the resources we rely on for transportation. The development of domestic biofuel sources will also further reduce the amount of imported crude oil used in the transportation sector. To advance as a field, however, improvements in sustainability and the economics of biomass production are needed. While conventional plant breeding is a powerful tool to improve crop genetics and varieties, further advances in biotechnology and new synthetic biology tools can enable novel phenotypes, such as drought tolerance, not possible through conventional breeding. These advances will result in characteristics such as the production of hydrocarbon fuels in the plant and novel bioproducts.

Project Innovation + Advantages:

The University of Tennessee (UT) team proposes to develop a tool that will revolutionize plant metabolic engineering by using a large scale DNA synthesis strategy. The UT team will develop synthetic chloroplast (the part of the plant cell where photosynthesis occurs) genomes, called “synplastomes.” Rather than introducing or editing genes individually inside the plant cell, the UT team will synthesize a complete chloroplast genome in the laboratory that can be readily modified and then introduced into the plant. UT’s synplastomes will have significant advantages over conventional biotechnology methods. UT’s synplastomes are expected to result in an extremely high expression of desired genes and will lack transgene positional effects, meaning improved consistency of trait expression. To ensure broader adoption and utilization of this technology, an editable synplastome will be generated that will feature standard genome editing sites and will allow for modification by researchers using standard, cost-effective techniques. The UT team’s work in synthetic biology could significantly advance the field of plant metabolic engineering and help produce a path toward more economical, sustainable bio-based products.

Potential Impact:

If successful, this technology will improve crop engineering for bio-energy feedstocks, helping to spur expanded production of biofuels.


Increasing the production of domestic biofuels would help diversify the resources we rely on for transportation, thus further reducing dependence upon imported crude oil.


This technology has the potential to decrease use of petroleum and grow bioenergy feedstocks more sustainably and economically, which will reduce CO2 emissions.


These advances could help diversify the resources we rely on for transportation thus securing against price shocks.


ARPA-E Program Director:
Dr. David Babson
Project Contact:
Prof. Neal Stewart
Press and General Inquiries Email:
Project Contact Email:


University of California, Berkeley
University of Pennsylvania

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