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BESC submits 32 gene disclosures for future patents


Plant geneticist Wellington Muchero examines phenotypic traits of Populus transgenic lines grown in a greenhouse.

The Bioenergy Science Center (BESC) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is preparing invention disclosures for 32 different genes that can help improve the yield of ethanol from cellulosic biomass. These genes or their variants function to overcome recalcitrance—difficulty in breaking down cellulosic biomass to release sugars.

Several members of ORNL’s Biosciences Division are submitting disclosures: 16 genes by Wellington Muchero, 10 genes by Udaya Kalluri, and 6 genes by Jay Chen. Seven of the genes are being readied for patent application, whereas the others are in early stages of the process, Chen said. “We have nominated these seven genes to go through the first phase of patent applications.”

Muchero worked with a population of poplar trees to explore natural genetic variants. “We sampled the natural diversity and determined how different the trees are in terms of how easily sugar can be released from cellulosic biomass,” he said. “Out of that we came up with 16 genes that were highly correlated with the sugar release phenotype.”

Kalluri’s gene discoveries were made by profiling tension wood, which is created as trees bend and straighten, said Jerry Tuskan, of ORNL’s Plant Genetics Group. The cell walls in tension wood contain over 90% cellu­lose. Kalluri profiled differences between normal and tension wood and identified 10 genes that appear to affect cellulose deposition.

These genes are being overexpressed or underexpressed in poplar trees. The researchers aim to select genetically mod­ified poplar trees with optimal traits for conversion of biomass to ethanol.

So how do you patent a gene that is a naturally occurring part of a plant?

“What’s being patented is a specific applica­tion of the gene or sequence,” Tuskan explained. “We can relate a specific gene sequence to a specific application. It’s not like a widget—we don’t make it. We have information companies don’t have, and they license that. They can use that informa­tion in their breeding program—look for that variant in their stock, or, if they’re growing another species, use genetic engi­neering to introduce that sequence or shut it off.”

By the end of its second 5 years, BESC researchers expect to have about 100 genes patented, Tuskan said.

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