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Sugarcane Biotechnology: Enhancing Crop Productivity, Key Challenges and much more

Chintu Das
Chintu Das
Sugarcane

More than a Sugar Plantation:

Whenever we speak of sugarcane, we immediately think of table sugar, the most common sweetener, also known chemically as sucrose. In fact, this vegetation of the genus Saccharum produces 80% of all sucrose produced globally, with sugarbeet accounting for the residual 20%. Sugar mills grind approximately 2 billion metric tons of sugarcane stalks every year to produce sucrose juice. But there's a lot more to this crop than just the sweet juice.

Sugarcane can be processed into a wide range of products, ranging from fiber to chemicals, using conventional methods. This crop can now be grown and used in more varied ways thanks to the wonders of biomedical research. Sugarcane will become a more effective producer of not only sucrose but also novel biofuels and chemicals with medical and industrial applications thanks to plant genetic engineering, which involves inserting new genes and altering existing ones.

Increasing Sucrose Yield:

Sugarcane is being genetically modified to increase its sucrose content. This work necessitates an interpretation of the many interconnected mechanisms that lead to sucrose aggregation in sugar-storing stems. Scientists have discovered the essential enzymes that set these mechanisms in action, which can be sped up or decelerated by genetic engineering for a more effective sucrose build-up in stems.

To increase the sucrose yield, sugarcane is being genetically modified one piece at a time. For instance, South African genetic engineers knocked down a specific enzyme as a first step. This increased the proportion of sucrose in the sugarcane plants' young stems. In the field, more examinations are being carried out. This, as well as other recent developments, clearly demonstrate the potential for significant increases in sucrose yield from sugarcane by fine-tuning the underlying processes.

Cellulosic Biofuel Production:

Sucrose is commonly used in the fermentation of biofuel ethanol. Ethanol is a renewable fuel that can help to reduce reliance on petroleum and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. To increase ethanol production, sugarcane breeders have concentrated on sucrose yield. However, the growing use of sucrose instead of food to make ethanol has raised ethical and economic issues. These issues have highlighted the importance of producing ethanol without jeopardizing the sucrose supply.

The cellulose in sugarcane leaves and bagasse (the leftover residue from crushed stalks) is being used in biotechnology to make ethanol. Enzymes degrade cellulose's complex chemical structure into simple sugars, which can then be fermented to produce ethanol. It is, however, highly guarded by a tough material called lignin, which must be removed using an expensive pre-treatment process.

In Brazil, existing genetic engineering efforts are aimed at changing the chemical composition of lignin so that it can be readily separated from bagasse, allowing for more effective cellulose to ethanol transformation. Researchers in Australia have inserted microbial genes into sugarcane, resulting in transgenic plants that can produce cellulose-degrading enzymes that are exactly engineered to work in mature plants' leaves4. Both of these programs have the potential to advance cellulosic ethanol technology.

Biofactory specializing in niche products:

The most effective field crop for turning sunlight and water into biomass is sugarcane. Sugarcane is thus an ideal plant for the co-production of certain compounds for medical and industrial applications, according to scientists. Sugarcane cells' genetic mechanisms can be changed to direct them to make these compounds, effectively converting the entire plant into a biofactory. Engineered sugarcane plants have been shown to make high-value chemicals such as therapeutic proteins and natural biopolymer precursors as evidence. This method of production may prove to be more effective than current methods.

The production of isomaltulose, an alternative sweetener, in transgenic sugarcane is a notable achievement in this field. This was accomplished by inserting a gene from a bacteria that produces an enzyme that converts sucrose to isomaltulose.

Crop Productivity Enhancement:

Transgenic technology has the potential to boost sugarcane productivity to previously unheard-of levels, benefiting farmers while still achieving the aforementioned goals. Sugarcane can be injected with genes from other species to protect it from pests and harsh environmental conditions. Drought-tolerant sugarcane was the first transgenic sugarcane variety commercially launched in Indonesia. This variety contains a bacterial gene that produces betaine, a compound that helps plant cells stay stable when there isn't enough water in the field.

Major Obstacles:

The sugarcane biofactory's potential has piqued scientific and commercial interest, but bringing it to market would be a tremendous regulatory challenge, particularly if it's intended for open-field cultivation. The risk of “unwanted” genes being transferred from biomanufacturing plants to food production plants is widely regarded as a disadvantage of biofactory approaches. In comparison to non-food plant biofactory systems like tobacco, the commercial viability of a sugarcane biofactory will be determined by the efficacy of risk containment. On a case-by-case basis, proponents would have to assess the effectiveness and profitability of sugarcane biofactories.

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