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USDA, Energy Fund Research to Accelerate Biofuel Crops

Switchgrass (Agricultural Research Service/USDA)

Switchgrass (Agricultural Research Service/USDA)

The U.S. Departments of Energy and Agriculture have awarded 10 grants totaling $12.2 million for up to three years for research on improving the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of growing biofuel and bioenergy crops. Energy’s Office of Science will provide $10.2 million in funding for eight projects, while USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) will award $2 million to fund two projects.

The USDA and Energy projects are designed to improve the properties of crops grown for biofuels, by increasing their yield, quality, and ability to adapt to extreme environments. Researchers are expected to employ tools from genomics to develop breeding and other strategies to improve the crops such as switchgrass, poplar, Miscanthus, and Brachypodium, among others.

If these crops can be optimized to tolerate conditions such as drought and poor soils, they can then be grown on marginal lands unsuitable for food crops, and avoid competing with food production. Farmers will have the option to grow bioenergy crops in addition to other existing crop choices.

The grant awardees include:

- Laura Bartley, University of Oklahoma in Norman, who will identify natural genetic variation in switchgrass that correlates with lignocellulose-to-biofuel conversion qualities.

- Eric Beers, Virginia Polytechnic and State University (Virginia Tech) in Blacksburg, who will identify interactions between proteins associated with wood formation in poplar, a woody biomass crop.

- David Braun, University of Missouri in Columbia, whose project will research sucrose accumulation in sweet sorghum through mechanisms regulating carbon allocation to stems.

- Luca Comai, University of California-Davis, who will 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.

- Stephen Kresovich, University of South Carolina in Columbia, whose research will help build the germplasm, breeding, genetic, and genomic foundations necessary to optimize cellulosic sorghum as a bioenergy feedstock.

- Jan Leach, Colorado State University in Fort Collins, who will research expedited discovery of genes controlling biomass productivity in switchgrass by leveraging results from rice, a well-studied model grass.

- Todd Mockler, Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, whose project will identify genes involved in light perception and signaling in the model grass Brachypodium distachyon to increase yield and improve the composition of bioenergy grasses.

- Erik Sacks, University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, who will encourage development of Miscanthus as a bioenergy crop by acquisition of fundamental information about its genetic diversity and environmental adaptation.

- Jianping Wang, University of Florida in Gainesville, whose research will identify genetic components contributing to biomass production of energy cane (Saccharum complex hybrids) that has potential as a bioenergy feedstock in the southern U.S.

- Jianming Yu, Kansas State University in Manhattan, who will integrate genomics-assisted approaches into biomass sorghum research, and combine with high-throughput and traditional field-based phenotyping methods to make possible advanced breeding strategies.

Read more: Grants Awarded for Biomass Research and Development

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