DOE, USDA to Develop Better Plants for Bioenergy

September 8, 2010

Photo of native plants in front of a river.

A joint DOE-USDA project will seek to improve the energy potential of biomass such as prairie cordgrass.
Credit: USDA

DOE and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on September 2 announced they will award $8.9 million for research under a joint DOE-USDA genetic breeding program that will create plants better suited for bioenergy production. Scientists at eight institutions will investigate biomass genomics, with the aim of harnessing lignocellulosic materials—nonfood plant fiber—for biofuels production. Funded projects will combine DOE's genome-scale technologies with USDA's experience in crop improvement to accelerate development of specialized perennials, including trees and other nonfood plants, and to improve their effectiveness as feedstocks for biofuels production. DOE's Office of Science will provide $6.9 million for seven projects, while USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture will award $2 million to two projects. The goal is to diversify the U.S. energy portfolio and cut foreign oil use.

The projects, supported for up to three years, will look to find long-range improvements. For example, Texas A&M University will host a project to identify the genetic and biochemical basis for increasing yield and to improve the composition of high-biomass cellulosic energy sorghum. Once genotypes are analyzed, scientists can create better bioenergy grasses. At the University of Illinois, researchers will examine the role of small RNA molecules in biomass production. In particular, they will study how RNA regulates cellulose and lignin, which make up most of the next-generation biofuel crops. The findings could help enrich the energy potential of crops such as miscanthus, switchgrass, and prairie cordgrass. See the DOE press release and the joint DOE-USDA Plant Feedstock Genomics for Bioenergy research program Web site.