February 11, 2012
Researchers Map Genomes Of Potential Biofuel Source
A team of University of Georgia researchers report that they have mapped the genomes of two originator cells of a type of perennial grass said to be a natural candidate for biomass farming -- work that reportedly could lead to improved ethanol and/or bioenergy crops.
Genetics and plant biology professor Andrew Paterson and postdoctoral research associate Changsoo Kim identified a set of approximately 600 bits of Miscanthus x giganteus DNA that could potentially serve as diagnostic tools, according to a university press release published on Friday.
Miscanthus is said to be a "natural candidate" for the creation of biomass because it can grow to heights of 12 feet or more in average-quality soil, does not require much fertilizer, and can thrive in temperate climates in the U.S., Europe, and Asia.
They also refer to it as "a cleaner source of energy than fossil fuels," because it is carbon neutral, meaning that it only releases carbon absorbed while it grows. The next step, according to researchers, is "to determine which pieces of DNA are diagnostic of genes that can make the plant an even better biofuel crop."
"What we are doing right now is 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," said Paterson, who is also a member of the Bioenergy Systems Research Institute. "And then one can use pretty straightforward statistics to look for correlations between bits of DNA and a trait."
According to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) statistics, total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. -- which include carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases released into the atmosphere by fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas -- increased 17% from 1990 to 2007. Carbon emissions increased by nearly 22% over that 17 year period, while methane rose 5% and nitrous oxide increased 1%, the agency added.
Kim and Paterson's work could help slow down or perhaps even reduce some of those trends.
It "will allow breeders to build on Miscanthus' natural strengths and remove some of its weaknesses," the university press release said. For example, they hope to keep it from flowering, which utilizes energy and nutrients that would otherwise allow Miscanthus to grow taller and produce thicker stalks and leaves, thus allowing farmers to grow "tall, hearty plants that will yield the most biomass possible."
Their work has drawn the interest of biotechnology companies such as Mendel Biotechnology, who partnered with Kim and Paterson on their work, according to the university. Large-scale production of Miscanthus biofuel "will take several years," but the researchers say that their work "is an important initial step in the process."
Image Caption: Miscanthus growing in a field. Photo Courtesy of Mendel Biotechnology.
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