Desert Diesel: Engineering Opuntia ficus-indica as a low input biofuel feedstock

EPA Grant Number: FP917799
Title: Desert Diesel: Engineering Opuntia ficus-indica as a low input biofuel feedstock
Investigators: Mayer, Jesse A.
Institution: University of Nevada - Reno
EPA Project Officer: Lee, Sonja
Project Period: September 1, 2015 through August 31, 2018
Project Amount: $132,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2015) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships


The objectives of this project are to generate genomic and transcriptomic resources for Opuntia, develop and implement multiple techniques to increase oil content in Opuntia’s vegetative tissues, and use multiple outreach strategies to educate farmers, stakeholders, and the public about the benefits of low-input biofuels. The hypothesis to be tested is that through genetic modification, Opuntia can be used to produce oils in vegetative tissues for biofuel production in semi-arid environments.


Unlike most agricultural plant species, little genomic data is available for Opuntia. State-of-the-art next generation and single molecule sequencing will be utilized to develop genomic and transcriptomic resources for both this project and the general Opuntia and CAM research communities. The sequence data will be combined with known oil synthesis genes found in model plant species to design optimized constructs for increasing oil content in Opuntia. These constructs will be transformed into Opuntia and the resulting biomass will be screened for increased oil content. In addition, outreach opportunities including the university’s Ag field day and greenhouse tours will inform the public about the ongoing research and the benefits of low-input biofuel feedstocks. A field trial will compare pad and fruit productivity levels of three different Opuntia species under three different levels of drip irrigation.

Expected Results:

Analysis of the genomic data will identify homologs of key oil biosynthesis genes to be targeted for increased oil production. Similarly, transcriptomic data will highlight strong native promoters to drive transgene expression. Transformation with multiple oil-increasing constructs will identify combinations of genes that will maximize oil levels in Opuntia. Outreach through greenhouse tours and presentations will engage and inform the community about semi-arid biofuels. Results from the field trial will be conveyed to farmers to determine agricultural viability of Opuntia production on a large scale in southern Nevada.

Supplemental Keywords:

Opuntia, genomics, biofuels, lipids

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2016
  • 2017
  • Final