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Genetic Modification of Sugar Cane?

Scientists in Australia predict that genome sequencing of sugarcane will be accomplished by 2010.  Once the sequencing is finished, scientists can begin to genetically modify sugarcane for a variety of purposes from improved biofuels to better plastics.

The Cooperative Research Centre for Sugar Industry Innovation through Biotechnology (CRC SIIB), in Brisbane, Australia made the announcement today that a draft sequence of sugarcane genomes is expected by 2010.  Since sugarcane has a higher carbon content than either corn or wheat, it is expected that genetic modifications can be made to make it even more energy intensive thus producing "Energy Cane".

Southern Cross University professor Robert Henry is heading the Australian portion of the international research project that includes scientists from Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO). Recent advances in technology and new government funded facilities are expected to rapidly advance genome sequencing of sugarcane. Further advances are expected from the meeting of researchers from around the world in Cairn in August.  The researchers will gather to plan further cooperative research into sugarcane.

Sugarcane is already used for biofuel and paper/plastic products.  New uses for sugarcane are expected to emerge besides just better biofuel and plastic.  These new products along with the expected advances in sugarcane as a biofuel, should benefit sugarcane producers worldwide.  Sugarcane growers will benefit from the current research just as corn growers have from prior genome research.

Therein lies one of the biggest potential problems for the future of this research.  Genetically modified corn has run into opposition on a couple of fronts.  First, many consumers worry that genetically modified corn may have unforeseen negative consequences if regularly eaten over a long period of time.  Secondly, genetically modifying corn for other uses like biofuel and plastic, take corn out of the food stream.

Sugarcane like corn, is used for a variety of food products.  Table sugar, falernum syrup, molasses, and rum are just a few edible products from sugarcane.  If growers can make more profit from growing specially modified sugarcane for biofuel, they may stop growing sugarcane for food, thus creating a shortage.

Genome sequencing of sugar cane is still in the early stages but what will happen when genetic modification of sugarcane becomes a reality?  Will food supplies diminish because of a new emphasis on energy cane?

Looking at the current situation with corn may give a glimpse of the future of sugarcane.  

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