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ST. LOUIS, MO – JULY 23, 2014 – As part of a joint Department of Energy-U.S. Department of Agriculture (DOE-USDA) program to accelerate development of improved plant feedstocks for biofuels, biopower, and biobased products, Danforth Plant Science Center researchers, Todd Mockler, Ph.D., principal investigator; Doug Bryant, Ph.D., director, bioinformatics core; Malia Gehan, Ph.D., post doctorate fellow; and Todd Michael, Ph.D., senior principal scientist, Ibis Biosciences were awarded funding for a $1.5 million project to understand physiologic responses of bioenergy grasses to environmental changes.
The program is part of a broader national effort to diversify the nation’s energy portfolio and accelerate development of new clean energy technologies designed to decrease dependence on foreign oil, providing a more secure future for America’s energy needs and enhancing rural economies.
“Biofuels and bio-based products offer the potential of homegrown American resources that can reduce our dependence on imported oil and also cut carbon emissions,” said Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz. “This advanced research is helping us to lay the groundwork for biomass as an important part of the low-carbon future.”
The research team will use a model grass, Brachypodium distachyon, to analyze the gene regulatory networks underlying drought stress responses. Specifically, they will identify and characterize the functional features of the genome associated with drought responses and will develop an integrated genome feature map, the Brachypodium Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (called ENCODE), that will enable advanced modeling of complex traits in plants.
“Crop traits such as drought resistance are the result of complex interactions between a plant’s genome and the environment,” said Mockler, the project leader. “The information we develop in this project will aid basic and applied research on a wide-range of bioenergy grasses and accelerate deployment of improved bioenergy grass feedstocks that will maintain stable yields under sub-optimal growth conditions.”
Dedicated feedstock crops tend to require less intensive production practices and can grow on poorer quality land than food crops, making this a critical element in a strategy of sustainable biofuels production that avoids competition with crops grown for food.
Brachypodium distachyon is a grass species related to the major cereal grain species wheat, barley, oats, maize, rice, rye, sorghum, and millet. It has many qualities that make it an excellent model system for functional genomics research in temperate grasses and cereals and dedicated biofuel crops like switchgrass. These attributes include a small genome, simple genetics, a small physical stature, self-fertility, a short lifecycle, and simple growth requirements.
The joint DOE-USDA program began in 2006, focusing on fundamental research on bioenergy crop genomics, with the aim of harnessing nonfood biomass for the production of transportation fuels or renewable chemical feedstocks.
New projects funded this year will build upon gains in genetic and genomic advances for bioenergy and biofuels. The projects will accelerate the breeding of optimized dedicated bioenergy crops through a better understanding of complex interactions between plants and their environment. Projects will help development of regionally adapted crop varieties with increased biomass or seed oil yield, and with traits leading to more sustainable cultivation practices and lower environmental impact.