UGA Maps Road to Better Biofuels

Researchers create genetic map of promising biofuel candidate.

By creating a “road map” of the genome of a hybrid grass in the genus Miscanthus (known as “Miscanthus x giganteus“), researchers at the University of Georgia have made a new contribution to the effort to find sources of clean, renewable energy

The plant is a natural candidate for biomass farming with promise as a source of ethanol and bio-energy. It requires very little fertilizer,has sugarcane-like stalks that grow more than 12 feet high in soil of marginal quality, and grows well across much of the United States, Europe and Asia.

Changsoo Kim, a post-doc in the UGA Plant Genome Mapping Laboratory, created the map. It can now serve as diagnostic tool for making the plant an even better biofuel crop. UGA professor Andrew Paterson is leading Kim's work.

Plants are cleaner sources of energy than are fossil fuels, because coal or oil contain carbon that has been trapped under the earth's crust for millions of years. When they are burned, that carbon is released into the atmosphere, which is a major cause of global climate change. Plants remove carbon from the atmosphere as they grow. And when they are burned, they release only the carbon they collected from the air, which means they are carbon neutral. They don’t contribute to the problem.

"What we are doing right now,” says Paterson, “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. And then one can use pretty straightforward statistics to look for correlations between bits of DNA and a trait."

Kim and Paterson's work should allow breeders to improve Miscanthus’s enatural strengths by removing some of its shortcomings. For example, a significant challenge to using the plant for the production of biomass here in the Southeast is that it flowers too soon, which prevents it from growing bigger leaves and taller, thicker stalks.

"You don't want it to flower," says Paterson. "You'd like it to keep making leaves and stalks and not bother with reproduction. Nature tells it not to do that."

Their efforts have caught the attention of biotechnology companies that hoping to make Miscanthusa profitable and widespread crop. One company, Mendel Biotechnology, was so interested in the potential that they partnered with Kim and Paterson. Mendel distributes genetically altered plants and plant seed to farmers for bio-energy crop production.

"There is a lot of basic research that we cannot afford to do," said Donald Panter, senior vice president of BioEnergy Seeds at Mendel. "We are a company that is trying to commercialize a product and serve our customers, so our relationship to academia in the U.S. is critical."

The new genetic map is likely to save Mendel years of research. Without it, researchers and breeders would have to go to many different locations and take thousands of measurements to figure out which plants have the best potential for improving future crops. Now they will be able to select the best plants much more rapidly.

"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," says Panter. "We wouldn't be as far along the way if we didn't have people like Andy Paterson helping us."

Large-scale production is still several years off, but Kim and Paterson's research is an essential initial step in the process.

"This is just the beginning," says Kim. "We want to provide breeders with a valuable resource for their future breeding efforts. That's our long-term goal."


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