August 6, 08
Researchers Cloning “Diesel Tree” to Enhance Native BioFuel Plants

If, say five years from now, you're filling your car's tank with low-cost fuel made from grass, algae or another non-food plant, you might have a University of Northern Colorado professor to thank.

Chhandak Basu, an assistant professor of biological sciences, is researching whether a gene from a tropical "diesel tree" can be cloned into other plants for mass production of biofuel.

Basu has received $100,000 for the two-year collaborative project with researchers at the University of Tennessee. Basu got a $49,643 grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development & International Trade, along with matching funds from UNC.

"I thought it's the right time to work on a biodiesel project with $4-a-gallon gas," he said.

Basu recently traveled to Puerto Rico to harvest the genetic material from the copaiba tree. The tree produces oleoresin, a compound with similar properties as diesel fuel.

Basu hopes to clone the genes from the tree and recultivate them in algae, weeds and non-crop native Colorado plants. He is using Arabidopsis as a model plant in the lab because of its similarity to the other non-crop plants.

"It doesn't have any economic importance," Basu said of Arabidopsis. "The idea is if (the cloning) works in Arabidopsis, it's going to work in other plants."

Since 2005, Basu has been working with C. Neal Stewart Jr., a University of Tennessee professor, on the project.

"Everyone, everywhere, all the states, all the countries, in fact, are putting money into biofuels projects," Basu said. "It's renewable energy. We can reuse it, unlike coal. We can grow the plant again and extract more fuel again and again."

He said that's a key reason the state's office of economic development was willing to fund the project.

Basu, a native Indian who came to UNC three years ago, said it will take about a year of testing to determine whether the cloning is possible. The second step would involve studying the economic viability of the biodiesel.

He noted that plenty of plants -- weed and algae and the like -- aren't used for anything. Using food products, such as corn, for fuel is controversial because it pushes up crop prices.

"If I could use those as biofuel crops that would be ideal," Basu said. "Then farmers could use these as cash crops to make extra money."

Basu is being helped in the UNC lab by Sam Zwenger, a doctoral student, and Eric Reinsvold, a master's student, as well as several undergraduates. They are working with a sample that Basu collected in Puerto Rico and shipped to Greeley in dry ice. He spent three days in Puerto Rico a couple months ago, using lab space donated by the University of Puerto Rico.

Basu, who is writing more grants to fund the project, earned his doctoral degree at the University of Rhode Island and did post-doctoral work at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. His specialty is plant biotechnology.

"I've always wanted to use plants to solve human needs," he said. "This is one of the ways that I can do that."