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University Genome Research Helping Biofuel Developer

Miscanthus (Oak Ridge National Lab)

Miscanthus (Oak Ridge National Lab)

Researchers at University of Georgia in Athens have mapped the genomes of two originator cells of the large perennial grass miscanthus that can help develop this grass as a source of ethanol and bioenergy. A California biofuel feedstock developer is partnering with the university on this project.

Miscanthus is a promising candidate for biomass farming, with stalks like sugar cane that grow to more than 12 feet in height in soil of marginal quality. The grass needs little fertilizer, and in moist temperate climates like the eastern U.S., it can produce more biomass on less acreage than other candidate biofuel crops.

Miscanthus, unlike fossil fuels, removes carbon from the atmosphere as it grows. When burned, the grass releases only the carbon it collected, effectively making it carbon neutral.

In the university’s Plant Genome Mapping Laboratory, the work of postdoctoral researcher Changsoo Kim has led to the identification of some 600 bits of miscanthus DNA that can serve as diagnostic tools. The project is now determining which pieces of DNA are diagnostic of genes that can make the plant an even better biofuel crop.

Andrew Patterson, the lab’s director, says that work involves “taking the same individual plants that were used in the genetic map and measuring their height, flowering time, the size of their stalks, the dimensions of their leaves and how far they have spread from where they were planted.” With those results, says Patterson, straightforward statistics should yield correlations between bits of DNA and the various traits of the plant.

For growers of biofuel crops, those traits of interest can be weaknesses as well as strengths, and one of miscanthus’s weaknesses is its ability to flower quickly. Flowering uses energy and nutrients that would otherwise go into stalks and leaves, the stuff used to make biofuels. The genetic map will allow Kim and Paterson to find miscanthus genes responsible for flowering and prevent it from happening too early in the growing season, leaving farmers with taller and stronger plants that will yield the most biomass.

The work at Georgia got the attention of Mendel Biotechnology in Hayward, California that is partnering with the lab on the project. The genetic map promises to save Mendel many years of field research to improve miscanthus, normally involving thousands of measurements of plant characteristics in many different locations to determine which plants have the greatest potential as the beginnings of a biofuel crop.

“There is a lot of basic research that we cannot afford to do,” says Donald Panter, a vice president at Mendel. “We really want to leverage the know-how we get from American academia to help us speed up the process of creating from nothing a commercial species that can be planted on millions of acres in the next 10 to 15 years.”

Read more: More Planning Needed for Water Use in Biofuel Crops

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