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"Gene Pull" -- The Discovery Files

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Tinkering with a single gene may give perennial grasses more robust roots and speed up the timeline for creating biofuels, according to researchers at the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Less is More.

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files -- new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

Researchers at Duke University have found a way to make certain plants grow faster and stronger by taking away a gene. Sounds counter-intuitive but according to the team, it works.

The plants they're working with are perennial grasses like switchgrass, a popular choice for creating biofuels. Though they can be harvested repeatedly, these grasses first need to fully establish their root system and that can take more than two years.

The team approached the challenge on a genetic level. They identified a gene that becomes active at the moment a cell stops dividing and begins to take on the characteristics of the mature cell it's destined to become. When the researchers disrupted the genes activity, the roots grew faster and the cells became larger. When they increased the genes activity, the roots grew slower. Taking away the gene was like giving the plant a way to live up to its full potential much faster.

For now the project is centered around biofuel plants, but this discovery could have much wider-ranging uses like creating bigger and stronger plants that pull more earth-warming carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Could there be other agricultural uses? Time will tell.

Bigger, stronger, faster-growing grass (Sound effect: lawn mower sounds) -- and I can't keep up with my lawn as it is.

"The Discovery Files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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