CSU receives grant to study rice as a feedstock

By Bryan Sims
Web exclusive posted August 8, 2008 at 9:31 a.m. CST

Colorado State University has been awarded a $1.5 million grant by the U.S. DOE and USDA to research rice as a potential feedstock for cellulosic biofuels production. In all, ten grants were awarded on July 31 to various universities and research institutes amounting to more than $10 million to accelerate research in the development of cellulosic biofuels. CSU received the largest grant.

The DOE and USDA began awarding the grants in 2006 to promote the development of biomass genomics research and further the use of cellulosic plant material for bioenergy and biofuels. The DOE's Office of Biological and Environmental Research provided $8.8 million, while USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Services kicked in $2 million for the grants.

Specifically, the CSU research project will examine rice, as opposed to switchgrass and other promising energy crops, in order to identify genes that could increase productivity and access to the plant's cell walls, according to Jan Leach, a professor in the department of bioagricultural sciences and pest management at CSU and lead researcher on the project.

"The goal of our DOE-USDA project is to identify genes that are important in optimizing the productivity and accessibility of plant cellulosic biomass," Leach said. "We're using rice as a model because of the rich information available from the genome sequencing projects and the availability in rice of many tools and genetic resources. Most of the target biofuel crops, such as switchgrass, do not have the wealth of tools and information that rice has, so it would take much longer to characterize the biomass accumulation processes in those crops than rice."

Rice holds potential practical applications for biofuels production, albeit being a food-based feedstock. Rice is widely grown in many developing countries around the world and it's the primary source of calories for about 40 percent of the world population. About half of the agronomic crop waste produced worldwide is rice straw, which could be a feedstock for biofuel and/or bioenergy production in poor communities.

With advances in using rice as a biofuel, Leach said the scope of the research would translate into direct applications on a global scale.

"While rice is a food crop-and a widely grown one at that-it is the information from its genes that could speed the development of new crops for cellulosic biofuels," she said. "We're not promoting rice as a biofuel crop. We're instead using information from its genes to help expedite the improvement of other plants such as switchgrass."

Leach will be joined in the research project by Daniel Bush, a professor of biology at CSU, John McKay, a professor of bioagricultural sciences and pest management, and Hei Leung, a plant pathologist at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.