University of Georgia studies biomass

By Jerry W. Kram
In July, the U.S. DOE and USDA awarded 10 grants totaling more than $10 million to universities and research institutes to accelerate the fundamental development of cellulosic biofuels. Two of those grants, totaling nearly $2.5 million, will go to research projects at the University of Georgia.

Steven Knapp, Jeff Dean and Joe Nairn of the University of Georgia, Mark Davis of the U.S. DOE, and Laura Marek of the USDA received $1.2 million to study the genomics of sunflowers. In addition, Knapp is working with Davis at the DOE National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., to study the biofuel properties of sunflowers. "Certain wild species of sunflower produce woody stems and high biomass yields, often reaching heights of 18 to 21 feet," Knapp said.

Jeffrey Bennetzen, the Norman and Doris Giles/Georgia Research Alliance professor of molecular genetics at Franklin College, received the second grant for nearly $1.3 million. It will fund a cooperative project with Katrien Devos, a University of Georgia College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences professor of crop and soil science, and plant biology.

The project will create genetic and genomic tools to study foxtail millet, a close relative of switchgrass. "Ethanol from switchgrass is a very different story from ethanol from maize grain," Bennetzen said. "Ethanol from maize grain requires large inputs and produces no net carbon capture to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Switchgrass captures carbon dioxide very effectively and won't lead to increased food costs because it doesn't take acreage away from food production."

Researchers need to find more efficient ways to convert lignocellulose-the material that makes up wood, leaves and stems-into ethanol. Learning more about foxtail millet, which is easier to study than switchgrass, will help, Bennetzen said. "Once the foxtail millet genome is sequenced, we will be able to quickly find the genes involved in making lignocellulose in foxtail millet, and this will make them easy to find in switchgrass, as well," he said.

The foxtail millet, or Setaria italica, genome will be sequenced this year by the DOE's Joint Genome Institute. This sequence will enhance further study and understanding of the genetic basis of biomass production, according to the researchers.

For a complete list of grant recipients and more information on the DOE-USDA biomass genomics research program, visit