Danforth Center wins DOE funding to study drought, biomass crops

By Donald Danforth Plant Science Center | July 17, 2012

The U.S. DOE awarded a five-year, $12.1 million grant to researchers at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and their collaborators at the Carnegie Institution for Science, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, the University of Minnesota and Washington State University to develop a new model plant system, Setaria viridis, to advance bioenergy grasses as a sustainable source of renewable fuels.

Drought is the number one stress crops endure which limits yield and is of growing concern due to the globe’s diminishing water supply and climate change.  This year, extreme heat and lack of rainfall combined with the mild winter has resulted in an all-time low in soil moisture and is producing new challenges for our nation’s farmers.  Reduced yields will likely spark a rebound in global food prices.  Drought conditions also have a major impact on crops that serve as sources of bioenergy.

Bioenergy grasses hold promise to provide a sustainable source of renewable fuels for the U.S. economy and reduce our dependence on foreign petroleum.  These dedicated second generation bioenergy crops can be grown on marginal lands and with fewer inputs than traditional row crops such as corn, which requires energy intensive annual planting and the addition of chemical fertilizers.   Bioenergy grasses require water just like all other crops and the next generation of bioenergy crops will need to be bred for important characteristics including drought resistance and other properties that will make them more productive.

To engineer bioenergy grasses with the desirable traits needed for large scale production, it is necessary to develop model plant systems that are closely related to bioenergy feedstocks, but which are more amenable to genetic analysis.  One of the most promising model species is the grass Setaria viridis.

“What we learn in improving bioenergy grasses in many cases can also be applied to cereal crops to improve their productivity.  Setaria viridis, the model species that will be used as the focus of our research, is closely related to corn and Brachypodium, another model grass of interest at the Danforth Center that has a genetic makeup similar to wheat,” said Dr. Tom Brutnell, director of the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels who is serving as Principal Investigator on the grant.

Brutnell and his colleagues will utilize genomic, computational and engineering tools to begin the genetic dissection of drought and density response in S. viridis. The research team will produce one of the most extensive molecular characterizations of plant growth in the field to date, generating several million data points that will be collected from physiological and molecular genetic studies.  In doing so, they hope to discover the mechanisms that underlie drought responses and identify candidate genes and pathways for improving the closely related feedstock grasses.  The ability of bioenergy feedstocks to use water efficiently and to produce abundant yields at high density will be major drivers in the development of improved varieties that can serve as a replacement for petroleum-based fuels.