Non-food Crops for Biofuel Production

Understanding plant cell walls to produce less expensive, higher quality biofuel

Ethanol from corn, some would say, is one of the best options for replacing fossil fuel. However, corn is an edible plant, and using food for fuel comes with great cost and sacrifice. The cost effective production of bioethanol from non-food sources, like wood or agricultural waste, would allow for a large source of biomass for fuel production, and reduce our reliance on imported oil. Dr. Heather Coleman, Assistant Professor of Biology at Syracuse University, studies plant cell walls to grow dedicated energy trees in marginal lands, facilitating the production of new bioethanol resources that will help the country become more energy independent. With collaborators in Australia and a robust team of professional technicians, graduate students as well as undergraduate researchers, Dr. Coleman hopes to break the cost barriers in the production of cellulosic biofuels.

Plant cell walls are heavily structured walls that restrict or direct plant cell growth. The high levels of carbohydrates or sugars in the cell walls make them an attractive research focus from a biofuels perspective, as those sugars can be extracted and fermented to produce ethanol. As they are responsible for facilitating water transport and for protecting cells from disease, these carbohydrate-rich cell walls possess a high security system that poses a continual challenge for scientists to access. To access these carbohydrates, Dr. Coleman studies how the plant cell wall is formed, what genetic and environmental factors affect its formation, and how we can improve the plant cell wall for the production of biofuels and other bioproducts.

Current research includes:

  • High Level Inducible Expression of Enzymes in Plants: Dr. Coleman is looking at using an inducible overexpression system to produce high value cellulose enzymes in plants. Currently, the cost of production for cellulosic enzymes is $1.50/gallon, which is not cost competitive with that of fossil fuels. The US Department of Energy has recently proposed a goal of reducing this cost to $0.10/gallon, and one of the ways Dr. Coleman sees it possible to meet this goal is to produce the enzymes required to break down plant cell walls within the plants themselves, then harvest those enzymes and use them for further processing.
  • Improving Plant Nitrogen Use Efficiency: Crops demand high levels of nitrogen in order to grow rapidly. Dr. Coleman is examining the metabolism of plants and pathways that allow the plant to grow quicker, and exploring avenues for altering the way plants use nitrogen, to reduce the amount of nitrogen needed to grow the plant and increase the quality for biofuels production.
  • Tailoring Plant Cell Walls for Biofuels Production: By understanding how the plant produces various types of carbohydrates in the cell wall through different pathways, Dr. Coleman hopes to tailor those pathways to be able to access the carbohydrates of the cell wall. Ultimately, understanding how cell walls are formed will help leverage natural variations and allow alteration of these pathways for improved cell wall characteristics.


Dr. Heather Coleman is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Syracuse University. A recipient of Early Career Award from the Department of Energy (2013-2018) and Early Career Researcher Award from Queensland University of Technology (2009), her research focuses on genetic and environmental control of cell wall formation, biotechnology, molecular farming, functional genomics. Her team includes one postdoc, two technicians, one graduate student and anywhere from 3-6 undergrads in the lab at any time. Being at a university, she places high value on the training of undergraduates and makes every effort to involve them in independent research projects that forward the mission of the lab. She collaborates with a group in Australia that has provided the inducible, high level expression system for model crops. She also collaborates with a colleague in Engineering who will play a large role in assessing the commercialization potential of the poplar lines that her team produces.

Growing up on a dairy farm in a small town in Canada, Dr. Coleman spent much of her time outside during the summer. Her first job was planting trees where she was out in the forest all the time and where her passion for the outdoors began to grow. She built a strong background in industrial forestry. When she started college, she had had no exposure to the idea of doing research as a career, until she had two professors take her aside and talk to her about the opportunities that existed. She started doing research in her senior year, and realized that she was most interested in environmental sustainability and how we can make the most of our resources. She completed her Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia, moved to Australia as a postdoc for three years, and moved to New York for further research and teaching in 2011. Her research on plant cell wall formation, originally aimed for improving trees for pulp and paper production, has now evolved into understanding cell wall formation and how to break down the cell wall for biofuels production.

Outside of her research, Dr. Coleman still enjoys the outdoors and often spends time with her family hiking and backpacking. Her love of outdoors has truly inspired a desire in her to do something that can have a big impact on how we affect the environment, and she continues to make an environmental difference through plant biology.

For more information,


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Early Career Award, 2013-2018

Department of Energy

Australian Research Council Discovery Fellowship, 2009-2011

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Fellowship, 2009-2011

Early Career Researcher Award, 2009

Queensland University of Technology