USDA and DOE Partnership Awards $8.9M to 9 Projects to Develop Better Plants for Biofuels

The US Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Energy (DOE) are awarding $8.9 million to projects aimed at improving and accelerating genetic breeding programs to create plants better suited for bioenergy production. The research grants will be awarded under the joint DOE-USDA Plant Feedstocks Genomics for Bioenergy program, which is focused on fundamental investigations of biomass genomics to harness lignocellulosic materials for biofuels production.

The emphasis is on perennials, including trees and other nonfood plants that can be used as dedicated biofuel crops. Since such crops tend to require less intensive production practices and can grow on somewhat poorer quality land than food crops, they will be a critical element in a strategy of sustainable biofuels production that avoids competition with crops grown for food, according to the partners.

Combining DOE’s leadership in genome-scale technologies with USDA’s long experience in crop improvement will help accelerate development of such specialized crops and improve their effectiveness as feedstocks for biofuels production, the two agencies said.

New projects to be funded this year aim at enhancing productivity, yield, nutrient and water utilization, and sustainability of plant feedstocks. Research focuses on better understanding of basic plant processes that control cell wall composition, plant architecture, cell size and division, wood formation, nutrient uptake, carbon allocation and on the impact of temperature and water availability.

DOE’s Office of Science will provide $6.9 million in funding for seven projects, while USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture will award $2 million to fund two projects. Initial funding will support research projects for up to three years.

Plant Feedstock Genomics for Bioenergy 2010 Awards
GranteeProjectProject Goal Funding
University of Delaware, Newark Genome-Wide Analysis of miRNA Targets in Brachypodium and Biomass Energy Crops Identify the targets of MicroRNAs (miRNAs) in different organs and under adverse environmental conditions in the model grass Brachypodium and in the energy crops switchgrass, Miscanthus, and sorghum. miRNAs are important regulatory molecules that repress selected “target” genes to enable normal development, stress responses, and other processes. This project should enhance understanding of regulatory networks and may suggest new strategies for improving biomass energy crops. $868,794 (DOE)
University of Georgia, Athens Organ and Tissue-Specific Sucrose Transporters: Important Hubs in Gene and Metabolite Networks Regulating Carbon Use in Wood-Forming Tissues of Populus Investigate how sucrose transporter proteins (SUTs) function to facilitate the distribution of sucrose for transient storage and biosynthetic use among different pathways in the developing wood matrix. Wood for lignocellulosic feedstocks is synthesized from sucrose that is exported from leaves and then processed in the wood-forming organs. SUTs mediate the export and efficient movement of sucrose from source leaves to sink organs in all plant species. $1,340,000 (DOE)
Energy Bioscience Institute, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign The Role of Small RNA in Biomass Deposition and Perenniality in Andropogoneae Feedstocks Investigate the role of small RNA molecules in biomass production and their importance in the regulation of cellulose and lignin biosynthesis. The tissues and organs of next-generation biofuel crops that provide biomass for energy production are primarily composed of lignin and cellulose. This research will focus on Miscanthus species as well as other biomass crops including switchgrass and prairie cordgrass. $1,165,900 (DOE)
The Institute for Advanced Learning and Research Development of a Low Input and Sustainable Switchgrass Feedstock Production System Utilizing Beneficial Bacterial Endophytes Understand the molecular and physiological mechanisms by which interaction with bacterial endophytes promotes growth in the promising bioenergy crop switchgrass. The use of naturally occurring beneficial bacterial endophytes with switchgrass represents a practical and feasible way to develop a low-input and sustainable feedstock production system. $734,759 (DOE)
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Functional Analysis of Regulatory Networks Linking Shoot Maturation, Stem Carbon Partitioning, and Nutrient Utilization in Sorghum Determine if changes in the Glossy15 gene system of sorghum might contribute to current physiological differences among grain, sweet and biomass sorghums, and whether this gene can be used to convert superior sorghum grain hybrids to cultivars enhanced for bioenergy production. $1,000,000 (USDA)
Texas A&M University, College Station Genomics of Energy Sorghum Biomass Accumulation Identify the genetic and biochemical basis for increasing yield and improving the composition of high-biomass cellulosic energy sorghum. Select genotypes will be analyzed for stem biomass yield, structure, and composition. The resources developed will enable analysis of the genes that modulate these traits and facilitate improvement of energy sorghum and other bioenergy grasses. $1,000,000 (USDA)
University of California, Berkeley Identification and Genetic Characterization of Maize Cell-Wall Variation for Improved Biorefinery Feedstock Characteristics Identify and characterize maize lines with enhanced biorefinery feedstock characteristics, particularly those containing higher yields of fermentable sugars. Stover, the material from the corn plant that remains after removal of the grain, consists primarily of cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin. Because corn stover is generated by US agriculture in significant amounts, this lignocellulosic residue is desirable to use as a biofuel source. $793,413 (DOE)
University of Missouri, Columbia Systems View of Root Hair Response to Abiotic Stress Gain insight into the impacts of variations in temperature and water availability on nutrient uptake by root cells. Root hair cells function to increase root surface area and to mediate water and nutrient uptake. The data obtained in this project should provide a better understanding of the impacts of climate change (heat and water limitation) on plant root physiology. $1,106,656 (DOE)
USDA Agricultural Research Service Western Regional Research Center, Albany, California Insertional Mutagenesis of Brachypodium distachyon Generate 30,000 additional insertional mutants in the model grass Brachypodium distachyon and sequence DNA flanking the insertion sites. Insertional mutants are a powerful research tool that allow researchers to rapidly determine the function of specific genes. Mutants from outside collaborators will be integrated into this collection and made available through a public database. $949,348 (DOE)

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