As demand for ethanol increases, researchers continue to look for new feedstock and ways to expand supply without sacrificing valuable farmland. Researchers at West Virginia University and Michigan State University are conducting research on new plants to use as substitutes that don’t compromise agricultural land.

West Virginia University Biology Professor Jonathan Cumming and Associate Professor Steve DiFazio are researching how acid soil and metal resistance in poplar trees can lead to non-food stock sources of biofuel production. This research is funded through a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture—National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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Jonathan Cumming tends to poplar saplings in his lab at West Virginia University. Credit: West Virginia University.

Soils that are older and weathered have high acidity levels and few nutrients, making plant growth difficult or impossible. The research team hopes to use genome studies to identify acid resistant clones of poplar trees. These trees can then be grown on marginal soils in the Eastern United States.

“Poplar has a wide range of responses to the environment and we’re hoping to identify specific genes that will do well on acid soils,” DiFazio noted. “When we identify these genes, we’ll be able to understand the reasons why they’re resistant and use these in the field.”

Where West Virginia University researchers have turned to poplar trees, Michigan State University researcher Robin Buell sees a possible solution in switchgrass. Michigan State University has been awarded $1 million from a joint U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program to develop a hardier variety of switchgrass, a plant native to North America that is widely viewed as a potential biofuel source.

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Robin Buell works with switchgrass at Michigan State University. Credit: Michigan State University.

“This project will explore the genetic basis for cold tolerance that will permit the breeding of improved switchgrass cultivars that can yield higher biomass in northern climates,” said Robin Buell, an MSU botanist and Michigan State University AgBioResearch department scientist. “It’s part of an ongoing collaboration with scientists in the USDA Agricultural Research Service to explore diversity in native switchgrass as a way to improve its yield and quality as a biofuel feedstock.”
One of the proposed methods to increase the biomass of switchgrass is to grow lowland varieties in northern latitudes, where they flower later in the season. Lowland switchgrass is not adapted to the colder conditions of a northern climate, so a small percentage of the plants survive. It is these hardy survivors that are the subject of research.

By studying the genetic composition of switchgrass, researchers hope to find new forms of the same gene that is responsible for cold hardiness. These new varieties could then be bred for switchgrass that can thrive in northern climates.

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