Plant Acclimation to Environmental Stress || Drought and Salinity Tolerant Biofuel Crops for the Thar Desert

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  • 71N. Tuteja and S. Singh Gill (eds.), Plant Acclimation to Environmental Stress,DOI 10.1007/978-1-4614-5001-6_3, Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

    1 Introduction

    The depleting fossil fuel reserves and concomitant upward trend in the oil prices has made energy security an important global policy issue for more than four decades. The heavy dependence on nonrenewable sources of energy like oil, natural gas, and coal, which ful ll almost 80% of worlds supply of primary energy needs (IEA 2007 ) , has posed serious environmental concerns and has threatened energy secu-rity. One of the major problems for developing nations like India is to strike a bal-ance between their growing energy demands and economic growth without affecting the environment. Alternative sources of biofuels can play an important role to meet Indias future energy needs and reducing the dependence on oil imports. The biofuel policy encourages use of renewable resources as alternate fuel to supplement trans-port fuel and proposed an indicative target of 20% blending of biofuel (biodiesel and bioethanol) by 2017 (Pohit et al. 2011 ) . In India, bioethanol and biodiesel is primarily produced from fermentation of sugar molasses and from seeds of Jatropha and Pongamia . An estimate suggests that around 60% of the ethanol produced in the world comes from corn and rest from sugarcane (ADB report 2011; Shinoj et al. 2011 ) .

    Growing bioenergy crops on marginal lands will be crucial in future for food security as well as reducing the liability of fuel import, and it offers an attractive way for retaining the arable land for food crops and offers a new source of income for poor farmers. The Thar Desert also known as The Great Indian Desert is worlds ninth largest subtropical desert in the north-western part of India, is spread over an area of 0.2 million km 2 , and is the one of the most heavily populated desert

    K. Malhotra G. K. Chhabra S. Kumar (*) Synthetic Biology and Biofuel, International Center for Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology , Aruna Asaf Marg , New Delhi 110067 , India e-mail:

    R. Jain V. Sharma Department of Bioscience and Biotechnology , Banasthali University , Banasthali , Tonk , Rajasthan 304022 , India

    Chapter 3 Drought and Salinity Tolerant Biofuel Crops for the Thar Desert

    Karan Malhotra , Gulshan K. Chhabra , Rachana Jain , Vinay Sharma, and Shashi Kumar

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    in the world (Fig. 3.1 ). About 720,000 ha desert area is saline and is used for production of table salt through open pits (subsoil) or wells (underground). Due to the high salt conditions, plants in this region have adapted to withstand high salt concentrations. It could be potentially used for the cultivation of bioenergy crops like Jatropha , Jojoba, Guayule, Sweet Sorghum, and Pearl millet, as these plants are well suited to grow in arid deserts and have special growth characteristics such as low water consumption under high salinity and require less nitrogen for their growth. Further, salt tolerance in these bioenergy crops can be enhanced using the approach of genetic engineering technology; however mechanism of salt tolerance differs in different species (Munns and Tester 2008 ; Arora et al. 2010 ) . The prospects of these bioenergy crops are discussed as following.

    1.1 Jatropha

    It is a multipurpose, drought resistant perennial plant that is native to Mexico and Central America and now cultivated panatropically (GRIN 2000 ; Jules and Paull 2008 ) . Jatropha is non-feed, poisonous crop, especially used as a hedge crop in countryside. Its tap and lateral roots help in preventing the soil erosion (Achten et al. 2007 ) and its farming on wasteland reduces the surface run-off by a rapid increase in evaporation and transpiration (Heuvelmans et al. 2005 ) . Jatropha is gaining interest as a renewable source of energy as it can easily survive in areas of low rainfall (200 mm per year), marginal productivity lands, and even grow on alkaline soils. It has about 2740% inedible oil in seed, mainly composed of oleic

    Fig. 3.1 Topo-geographical map showing location of Thar Desert in India

  • 733 Drought and Salinity Tolerant Biofuel Crops for the Thar Desert

    acid, linoleic acid, and palmitic acid (Pramanik and Tripathi 2005 ; Achten et al. 2007, 2008 ) , which can be easily converted to biodiesel. The collection of seeds is easy as the plant is not too tall. The Jatropha curcas has been already under cultiva-tion in some areas of Rajasthan (Fig. 3.2a ) from past 7 years with the help of Indian government. Indian government has identi ed 400,000 km 2 (98 million acres) of land where Jatropha can be grown that will provide much needed employment to the rural poor of India. Interestingly, both public and private sector companies such as Indian oil corporation (IOC), IFFCO, ONGC, Emami, and TERI have approached Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh governments for contract farming of Jatropha . Mission New Energy operates in over 15,000 villages across ve states in India, cultivating over 194,000 acres of jatropha (Nobrega and Sinha 2008 ; Mariano 2011 ) . The initiative taken for the large-scale Jatropha biodiesel production on bar-ren lands could be one of the most practical options for increasing Indias share in biofuels and transportation sector.

    1.2 Sweet Sorghum ( Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench)

    There is a variety of sorghum with high content of sugar and has a good potential as a feedstock that can be used as a fuel. Sweet sorghum can thrive under drier and warmer conditions, grown primarily for forage, silage, and syrup production. C 4 biochemical mechanism of this plant makes it more ef cient to survive in drought conditions (Billa et al. 1997 ; Reddy and Reddy 2003 ) . Sweet Sorghum is widely cultivated in United States on marginal lands for the purpose of ethanol production. The life cycle of the plant is short and it attains a height of 34 m within a period of

    Fig. 3.2 Biofuels crops suitable for growing in the Thar Desert. ( a ) Jatropha fruits, ( b ) Sweet sorghum, ( c ) Perl millet, ( d ) Jojoba seeds and fruits, ( e ) Guayule

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    4 months (Dajue 2009 ) . The stalk of the plant is rich in fermentable sugar and consists of glucose, fructose, and sucrose (Sipos et al. 2009 ) . Ethanol production by yeast fermentation of sorghum juice has also been reported (Laopaiboon et al. 2007, 2009 ) . It is also being considered as a substrate for hydrogen production (Antonopoulou et al. 2008 ) .

    1.3 Guayule ( Parthenium argentatum Gray)

    It is a perennial shrub belonging to the family Asteraceae and is native to Chihuahuan desert in the south-western United States and northern Mexico (Foster and Coffelt 2005 ; Jasso Cant et al. 1996 ) . Commercially, P. argentatum is an excellent source of natural rubber and its latex nds wide use as medical products like surgical bal-loons. Other uses include production of termite resistant wood and resin based prod-ucts (Nakayama et al. 2001 ) . Recent energy crisis has gathered attention on evaluating its potential as an energy crop. The biomass of the entire plant has higher energy values (21.77 MJ/kg) compared to other plant biomass like corn and switch grass. Moreover, resins produced by guayule have energy values (37.90 MJ/kg) com-parable to most other oilseed crops (Nakayama et al. 2003 ) . In that way, guayule offers an economically viable biofuel option which does not compete with the food produc-tion and could be easily produced in desert area.

    1.4 Pearl Millet ( Pennnisetum glaucum )

    This crop is well suited to grow in arid regions of India and grows well on sandy soils with low pH (Kumar 1989 ) . It has higher protein and oil content than maize and sorghum (Burton et al. 1992 ) . The crop can supplement maize feedstock for fuel production; however amount of ethanol produced is less but higher protein content makes it economically more feasible than corn as fermentation rates in pearl millet are 30% higher than corn (Wu et al. 2006 ) .

    1.5 Jojoba ( Simmondsia chinensis )

    It is native to Sonoran desert (Southwest USA and Northern Mexico) and is now widely used as a commercial crop. Seeds contain 50% of a light yellow, odorless wax commonly referred to as Jojoba oil (Toress et al. 2006 ) . The oil consists of straight chain esters of monounsaturated long-chain fatty acids and long-chain primary fatty alcohols, in particular two ester molecules containing 40 and 42 carbon atoms which make up to 80% of the oil (Tobares et al. 2004 ) . Minor amounts of fatty acids and alcohols, phytosterols, tocopherols, and trace amounts of free triacylglycerol have

  • 753 Drought and Salinity Tolerant Biofuel Crops for the Thar Desert

    also been reported. The plants drought and salt tolerant nature makes it a viable alternative in arid/semi-arid regions of the world (Mills et al. 1997 ) (Fig. 3.2d ). It is increasingly being used as a constituent of biofuel. Selim et al. ( 2008 ) tested the ef cacy of Jojoba as a fuel and the performance was compared by connecting an array of sensors to diesel engine which was run separately on regular diesel fuel and another on jojoba methyl ester made by adding a dash of methanol and a catalyst to raw jojoba oil. The fuel matched diesel for torque and power for engine speeds; they tested between 1,000 and 2,000 rpm. Jojoba offers as a more reliable source of biofuel because its oil contains less carbon than current fuel which means less green house gas emission. Moreover, the oil is completely devoid of sulphur which results in long-lasting engines. The oil has a higher ash point which makes it convenient to be stored and transportation (Selim et al. 2008 ) .

    2 Genetic Improvement for Salt and Drought Tolerance

    High salinity and drought conditions are the major abiotic stresses that prevail in Thar Desert. Soil salinity, one of the most severe abiotic stresses, hampers agricultural pro-ductivity on nearly 20% of irrigated land worldwide (Rhoades et al. 1990 ) . A saline soil typically has high sodium ion concentrations which are toxic to the plant and disrupts the ionic and osmotic equilibrium of the plant (Fig. 3.3 ). The response of plants to these stresses involves variations in the activity of numerous stress responsive genes which function in coordination to reestablish the homeostatic conditions. These harsh condi-tions permit the growth of only selected crops that are adapted to these stresses.

    There are two approaches being used to improve salt tolerance in plants: one is through direct selection of plants capable of growing in stressful environments and another through development of transgenic plants by introduction of novel genes having role in improving salt tolerance or modifying the expression levels of existing

    Fig. 3.3 Impact of salt stress: Saline soil negatively impacts crop growth by disrupting the ionic and osmotic equilibrium. Altered K +/ Na + ratio and production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) retard the growth of plant

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    genes to improve salt tolerance (Yamaguchi and Blumwald 2005 ) . Ongoing research reveals that salt tolerance in halophytes and glycophytes involves a multitude of adap-tations ranging from production of compatible solutes (osmolytes), sequestration of ions, changes in the level of superoxide dismutase (SOD), peroxidases, transcription factors, and preferential uptake of desirable ions or removal of the toxic ones. The role of RNA helicases in salt and drought stress is also emerging (Fig. 3.4 ).

    As a result of salinity, there is a decrease in water ow towards plant roots due to reduction in the permeability of soil. Consequently, the permeability of plasmalemma drops resulting in fall of water potential. Under such dehydrating conditions, glycine betaine (GB), a quaternary ammonium compound encoded by betaine aldehyde dehy-drogenase (BADH) gene, was found to accumulate in certain halophytes (Yancey 1994 ) . This novel gene was also reported in Jatropha curcas (JcBD1) and expression levels were higher in leaves undergoing environmental stress. GB has dual functions acting not only as an osmoprotectant but also in maintaining protein and membrane conformations (Papageorgiou and Murata 1995 ; Hamilton and Heckathorn 2001 ) . Overexpressing this enzyme in transformed E. coli has conferred resistance to salt ( Zhang et al. 2008 ) . Therefore, engineering glycine betaine in biofuel crops may offer a possible way to improve their ef ciency to grow in harsh conditions of Thar Desert.

    Saline conditions may also subject plants to oxidative stress leading to formation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) which have inhibitory effects on cell metabolism (Bowler et al. 1992 ) . As a defence mechanism, the level of SOD increases to eliminate ROS. The activity of SOD increases about 1.5-fold in response to salt stress in transgenic as compared to control, implicating its role in abiotic stress (Tanaka et al. 1999 ) .

    In the absence of any salt regulating mechanisms, the internal salt concentrations can reach three times than that of external medium (Munns et al. 1983 ) . The concentration of sodium ions above a certain threshold level is toxic to both halophytes and

    Fig. 3.4 Various components involved in drought and salt tolerance. Halophytes and glycophytes exhibit a variety of adaptations like vacuolar sequestration of ions, production of osmolytes, super-oxide dismutase (SOD), and antioxidants. High level of abscisic acid (ABA) increases tolerance to drought. Engineering plants with transcription factors like CRE/DREB improves drought toler-ance. Pyrabactin, a synthetic chemical that mimics ABA, helps in drought tolerance. The role of RNA helicases (DEAD-box) in abiotic stress is also beginning to emerge

  • 773 Drought and Salinity Tolerant Biofuel Crops for the Thar Desert

    glycophytes. Moreover, the enzymes present in the cytosol of both halophytes and glycophytes are sensitive to high salt concentrations suggesting that maintaining a high K + /Na + cytosolic concentration is very essential for survival in saline soils. Halophytes achieve this ratio by increasing the ef ux of sodium through ion channels or by com-partmentalizing sodium ions in the vacuole. The genes involved in these processes have strong roles in improving salt tolerance in plants and appear as an attractive option for improving the growth of biofuel crops in Thar Desert.

    The mechanism of salt overly sensitive (SOS) pathway (Fig. 3.5 ) and the genes involved in genetic improvement of plants for salt and drought tolerance is better studied in the mu...