US researchers to use $1.1m grant to improve biofuel crops

Researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) will use a $1.1 million (€930,000) U.S. Department of Energy grant to produce disease-resistant switchgrass in order to produce biofuels from it.

It will use the grant to fight disease in switchgrass by identifying regions of the genome that cause disease resistance. According to the MSU, locating these disease-fighting regions will help improve switchgrass’ viability.

“I am very interested in using evolutionary principles to improve biofuel crops,” said David Lowry, MSU plant biologist and grant coordinator. “We’ll identify the diseases that attack switchgrass across the United States and then uncover the genetic causes of resistance to those diseases. The end result will be regionally adapted switchgrass that can thrive in different regions of the US.”

Different traits

Switchgrass can be found across much of the eastern US. However, switchgrass plants have different traits in the north and the south. Southern switchgrass, for example, do well in heat and can fight off fungal diseases that thrive in warm, wet climates.

Northern grasses survive freezing winter temperatures, but they wither when exposed to heat, drought or disease – elements that barely bother their southern cousins.

“With larger plantings of switchgrass in the future, diseases will become much more intense. Unless controlled, these diseases will drive major crop and economic losses. We are already seeing biofuel losses due to disease of over 50% in some test plots,” Lowry said.

According to the MSU, breeding programmes, ones that take advantage of natural genetic variation in disease resistance, have great potential to improve resistance.

“We are particularly interested in improving disease resistance of midwestern switchgrass by understanding why they are more susceptible to disease than plants from the southern US,” Lowry said.

‘Valuable insights’

Lowry and his team will utilise new genetic mapping populations to identify genomic regions responsible for divergence in disease resistance between northern upland and southern lowland switchgrasses.

The scientists also will conduct a genome wide association study to identify genes involved in disease resistance. Together these approaches will uncover the causes of disease resistance in switchgrass and provide valuable insights that can be used by breeders to produce more resilient crops.

The seeds of this research have already been planted. Lowry has already established ten growing sites across the central US, spanning 17 degrees of latitude from Texas to Michigan. The research will be conducted in collaboration with Gary Bergstrom at Cornell University.

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