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USDA, DOE award 10 R&D grants for advanced bioenergy feedstocks

| August 12, 2011

In Washington, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the USDA and DOE have awarded 10 grants totaling $12.2 million to spur research into improving the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of growing biofuel and bioenergy crops.  The USDA and DOE projects are designed to improve special crops to be grown for biofuels-including selected trees and grasses-by increasing their yield, quality and ability to adapt to extreme environments.  The research will be conducted on switchgrass, poplar, Miscanthus and Brachypodium, among other plants. The 10 projects are located in California, Colorado, Illinois, Florida, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Virginia.

In 2011, DOE will provide over $10 million in funding over 3 years, while USDA will award $2 million over 3 years.

The Bottom Line

There are two grants supporting poplar trees, five in the area of grasses and canes, and three in the area of sorghum.

Two grants are aimed at increasing biomass production, while one is aimed at increasing sugar yields, four are aimed at foundational genetic resources that expand the research toolbox, and three are aimed at identifying traits that superior biomass composition (for example, to facilitate processing).

Important work, but relatively long-term in nature – primarily aimed at cataloguing superior traits, and expanding our foundational understanding of how several key biofuels feedstocks operate. Only 30 percent of the grants are directly aimed at improving biomass production, or the concentration of sugars.

2011 Awards

“Association Mapping of Cell Wall Synthesis Regulatory Genes and Cell Wall Quality in Switchgrass”
Laura E. Bartley, University of Oklahoma, Norman

Goal: Identify natural genetic variation in switchgrass that correlates with lignocellulose-to-biofuel conversion qualities. Most plant dry matter is composed of lignocellulose, and because switchgrass yields high amounts of this material and tolerates drought and other stresses it is an attractive candidate for development into a biofuel crop. This project should enhance understanding of the qualities that critically impact the conversion efficiency of lignocellulose into biofuels.

“Functional Interactomics: Determining the Roles Played by Members of the Poplar Biomass Protein-Protein Interactome”
Eric Beers, Virginia Polytechnic and State University, Blacksburg

Goal: Identify key interactions between proteins associated with wood formation in poplar, a woody biomass crop. Wood characteristics result from the coordinated actions of enzymes and structural proteins in the cells, which typically interact with other proteins to perform their roles. This project will uncover the potential of the biomass protein-protein interactome to contribute to the development of poplar trees with superior biomass feedstock potential.

“Functional Genomics of Sugar Content in Sweet Sorghum Stems”
David M. Braun, University of Missouri, Columbia
Goal: Improve sucrose accumulation in sweet sorghum through investigating the mechanisms regulating carbon allocation to stems. A rapidly growing, widely adaptable crop, sweet sorghum accumulates in the stem high concentrations of sucrose that can be efficiently converted to ethanol, making this a valuable candidate bioenergy feedstock. This research will use a combination of approaches to identify bioenergyrelevant genes and to understand their functions in carbon partitioning in sweet sorghum.

“Creation and High-precision Characterization of Novel Populus Biomass Germplasm”
Luca Comai, University of California, Davis

Goal: Provide new genomic tools for poplar breeders to identify germplasm with unique genotypes and increased biomass yields, and develop techniques for creating poplar hybrids with unique combinations of chromosomal regions. Because such properties can confer faster growth, this project addresses a challenge posed by the long generation time of trees through fast and cost-effective nontransgenic genetic manipulation.

“Genomic and Breeding Foundations for Bioenergy Sorghum Hybrids”
Stephen Kresovich, University of South Carolina, Colombia

Goal: Build the germplasm, breeding, genetic, and genomic foundations necessary to optimize cellulosic sorghum as a bioenergy feedstock. This project will facilitate breeding sorghum lines optimized for energy production and selected to maximize energy accumulation per unit time, land area, and/or production input.

“An Integrated Approach to Improving Plant Biomass Production”
Jan Leach, Colorado State University, Fort Collins

Goal: Expedite discovery of genes controlling biomass productivity in switchgrass by leveraging results from rice, a well-studied model grass. Switchgrass and other perennial grasses are promising candidates for bioenergy feedstocks; however, the genetic resources necessary to develop these species are currently limited. This work will greatly expand the research tool box for switchgrass and advance its improvement as an energy crop.

“Modulation of Phytochrome Signaling Networks for Improved Biomass Accumulation Using a Bioenergy Crop Model”
Todd C. Mockler, Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, St. Louis

Goal: Identify genes involved in light perception and signaling in the model grass Brachypodium distachyon to increase yield and improve the composition of bioenergy grasses. Plant growth and development, including biomass accumulation, are affected by the light environment. Finding key genes involved in modulating light perception could be useful in targeted breeding or engineering efforts for improved bioenergy grass crops.

“Quantifying Phenotypic and Genetic Diversity of Miscanthus sinensis as a Resource for Knowledge-Based Improvement of M. x giganteus (M. sinensis x M. sacchariflorus)”
Erik J. Sacks, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Goal: Facilitate development of Miscanthus as a bioenergy crop by acquisition of fundamental information about genetic diversity and environmental adaptation. Miscanthus is among the most promising cellulosic biofuel crops, but its improvement as a feedstock will require a broader genetic base. Identification of molecular markers associated with traits of interest will improve Miscanthus breeding efforts.

“Discovering the Desirable Alleles Contributing to the Lignocellulosic Biomass Traits in Saccharum Germplasm Collections for Energy Cane Improvement”
Jianping Wang, University of Florida, Gainesville

Goal: Improve energy cane by identifying the genetic components contributing to biomass production. Energy cane (Saccharum complex hybrids) holds great potential as a bioenergy feedstock in the southern United States. This project will produce foundational genetic resources for energy cane breeders to efficiently develop cultivars with increased biomass production and reduced input requirements.

“Sorghum Biomass Genomics and Phenomics”
Jianming Yu, Kansas State University, Manhattan

Goal: Integrate key genomics-assisted approaches into biomass sorghum research, and combine with high-throughput and traditional field-based phenotyping methods to enable advanced breeding strategies. By both exploiting genetic diversity and understanding the genotype-phenotype relationship, predictive approaches for efficient and cost-effective breeding can be developed.

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