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U.S. Energy, Ag Depts Fund Genomic Research for Biofuels

Flowering sorghum (Agricultural Research Service/USDA)

Flowering sorghum (Agricultural Research Service/USDA)

18 July 2014. The U.S. energy and agriculture departments are funding 10 new studies that aim to improve plant feedstocks for biofuels and other bio-based products. Department of Energy (DoE) is contributing $10.6 million in 2014, while Department of Agriculture (USDA) is adding $2 million. The studies run for 3 years.

The joint DoE/USDA Plant Feedstock Genomics for Bioenergy program started in 2006 with the aim of improving the capacity of renewable feedstocks for biofuels, such as ethanol, and chemicals. The research is particularly focused on dedicated plant species that grow on land that can’t support food crops and require less intensive production practices.

The new projects funded for 2014 are:

– Patrick Brown, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign ($1.3 million) is studying genetic variations in 600 types of sorghum to reveal traits that affect their cellulosic content and potential energy yields.

– Amy Brunner, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg ($1.4 million) is investigating an integrator of signaling pathways in poplar trees considered a biofuel source with high potential, that regulate their seasonal growth and dormancy, and respond to day-length and nutrient stress.

– Robin Buell, Michigan State University, East Lansing ($1 million) is researching genetic mechanisms and outputs, such as metabolites and RNAs — nucleic acids providing genetic instructions to cells — in switchgrass to better understand how this feedstock adapts to cold and to improve its breeding efficiency.

– Luca Comai, University of California, Davis ($1.3 million) is studying the dosage of genes in hybrid varieties of poplar trees to identify and field test dosage variations that contribute to their optimal biofuel feedstock properties.

– Maria Harrison, Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, Ithaca, New York ($864,400) is investigating the genomes of Brachypodium distachyon, a model grass species, as well as the biofuel feedstock sorghum to identify proteins in sorghum development that can benefit its breeding and sustainability.

– Michael Marks, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis ($1 million) is researching the agronomic traits of pennycress — a hearty, low-growing, flowering weed — as a potential oilseed feedstock for biodiesel and cover crop in the upper Midwest.

– John McKay, Colorado State University, Fort Collins ($1.5 million) is studying the newly sequenced genome of Camelina, an oilseed that grows on marginal land with no irrigation,  to improve its performance as a biofuel feedstock in arid regions of the West.

– Todd Mockler, Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, St. Louis, Missouri ($1.5 million) is investigating Brachypodium distachyon genomes to find traits in the model grass plant that can improve drought resistance and other desirable properties of engineered bioenergy grass feedstocks.

– John Mullet, Texas A&M University, College Station ($1.2 million) is researching traits of sorghum and related plant species to increase their water efficiency and drought resistance, as well as field testing engineered hybrid sorghum varieties.

– Erik Sacks, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign ($1.5 million) is studying miscanthus to identify and field test molecular markers associated with traits that improve this plant feedstock’s yield and adaption, as well as those of related sugar and energy cane varieties.

The research is not only expected to advance knowledge of biofuel feedstocks, but also contribute to economic development in rural areas, by providing additional opportunities for growers using marginal lands and needing few resources.

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