News last update:6 Aug 2012

Robot improves ethanol research

Scientists with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Peoria, Illinois, are excited about the latest member to join their team: a one-armed robot.

They expect it to speed studies aimed at harnessing the power of proteins for industrial uses, such as making fuel ethanol from fibrous corn stover.

The robot is the centrepiece of an automated system called the "plasmid-based functional proteomics work cell."
According to Stephen Hughes, a molecular biologist with the ARS National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, the system is the first of its kind to fully automate several procedures that have traditionally been carried out by hand—human hand, that is.

A short list of functions includes extracting genetic material from the cells of plants, microbes and other organisms; making DNA copies of genes; inserting the copies into Escherichia coli; culturing these bacteria so that the copies can be sequenced and their proteins identified; and inserting desirable genes into yeasts used to make ethanol.

Takes over human hand
Thanks to the fast, precise movements of its mechanized arm, the robotic system can carry out such tasks hundreds—or even thousands—of times faster than a human could, notes Hughes.
Of particular interest is using the robotic system to genetically modify new strains of Saccharomyces yeast that can metabolize sugars locked up within corn fibre—something these microbial workhorses have so far failed to do.
Currently, only the starch from corn and other grain crops is being converted commercially into the sugars from which ethanol is derived.
With the Saccharomyces yeasts now used, this equates to nearly 47 litre of ethanol from 100 kg of corn. Using new strains capable of breaking down corn fibre could potentially squeeze 10% more ethanol from the grain, Hughes and colleagues estimate.

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