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USDA and DOE select 13 biofuels projects for more than $41M in awards

The US Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Energy (DOE) will award $41 million investment to 13 projects to drive more efficient biofuels production and feedstock improvements through genomics.

Through the joint Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDI), USDA and the DOE are working to develop economically and environmentally sustainable sources of renewable biomass and increase the availability of renewable fuels and biobased products. Five projects newly selected will help to replace the need for gasoline and diesel in vehicles. The cost-shared projects include:

  • Quad County Corn Cooperative ($4.25 million). This project will retrofit an existing corn starch ethanol plant to add value to its byproducts, which will be marketed to the non-ruminant feed markets and to the biodiesel industry. This project enables creation of diverse product streams from this facility, opening new markets for the cooperative and contributing to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s goals for cellulosic ethanol production and use.

  • Agricultural Research Service’s National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research ($7 million). This project will optimize rapeseed/canola, mustard and camelina oilseed crops for oil quality and yield using recombinant inbred lines. Remote sensing and crop modeling will enhance production strategies to incorporate these crops into existing agricultural systems across four ecoregions in the Western United States. The oils will be hydrotreated to produce diesel and jet fuel.

  • Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. ($6.85 million). Guayule is a hardwood perennial natural rubber-producing shrub grown in the semi-arid southwestern United States. This project will optimize production and quality of guayule rubber using genomic sequencing and development of molecular markers. The extracted rubber will be used in tire formulations, and the remaining plant residue will be evaluated for use in biopower and for conversion to jet fuel precursors.

  • University of Wisconsin ($7 million). This project will utilize dairy manure as a source of fiber and fertilizer. Fiber will be converted to ethanol, manure used for fertilizer, and oil from the crops will be converted to biodiesel used in farm equipment. The project goal is to develop closed-loop systems with new product streams that benefit the environment.

  • University of Hawaii ($6 million). This project will optimize the production of grasses in Hawaii, including napier grass, energy cane, sugarcane and sweet sorghum. Harvest and preprocessing will be optimized to be compatible with the biochemical conversion to jet fuel and diesel.

DOE and USDA also announced more than $10 million for eight research projects aimed at applying biomass genomics to improve promising biofuel feedstocks and drive more efficient, cost-effective energy production. These projects will use genetic mapping to advance sustainable biofuels production by analyzing and seeking to maximize genetic traits like feedstock durability, how tolerant feedstocks are to various environmental stresses, and the potential for feedstocks to be used in energy production.

The projects selected include:

Plant Feedstock Genomics for Bioenergy
Lead organization Description Funding
Michigan Technological University Functional Gene Discovery and Characterization of Genes and Alleles Affecting Wood Biomass Yield and Quality in Populus
Goal: To discover and characterize novel genes and alleles that affect wood biomass yield and quality in Populus. By combining mutagenesis for functional identification of genes with next generation sequencing technologies for identification of alleles with breeding values, these discoveries can enable knowledge-based approaches for development of specialized bioenergy poplar cultivars.
Michigan State University Identifying Differences in Abiotic Stress Gene Networks between Lowland and Upland Ecotypes of SwitchgrassGoal: Investigate response to drought and salt stress in a diverse collection of lowland and upland switchgrass ecotypes. Comparing differential gene expression between tolerant and sensitive lines will allow a better understanding of this response, as well as the identification of genes and germplasm that can be used to improve cultivated switchgrass to better tolerate these abiotic stresses.
Oregon State University Poplar Interactome for Bioenergy Research
Goal: Identify genome-wide functional gene networks and subnetworks in poplar that are associated with abiotic stress tolerance and bioenergy related traits, as well as candidate genes which interact to produce abiotic stress resistant phenotypes. Using a combination of computational projections, gene expression analysis, and experimental validation, this project will further development of poplar varieties that can thrive under abiotic stress on marginal land that is unsuitable for food crops.
University of Texas, Austin The Genetics of Biofuel Traits in Panicum Grasses: Developing a Model System with Diploid Panicum hallii
Goal: Utilize genetic and genomic analyses to better understand the growth and development of Panicum grasses, including the diploid Panicum hallii, and provide tools for predicting biomass and tissue related phenotypes from genotypes. This project will exploit natural variation to discover the genes important in biomass production, tissue quality, and stress tolerance under diverse environmental conditions, providing avenues for improving C4 perennial grasses for use as bioenergy crops.
University of Georgia Genomics of Bioenergy Grass Architecture
Goal: Understand the genetic determinants of plant architecture that are important to the design of sorghum genotypes optimized for biomass production in a range of environments. Optimal biomass productivity in temperate latitudes and/or under perennial production systems may require substantial changes to architecture of plants of tropical origin that have previously been adapted to annual cultivation. This project will further enhance the value of many existing resources while also adding new dimensions to scientific research capacity.
Iowa State University Genetic Architecture of Sorghum Biomass Yield Component Traits Identified Using High-Throughput, Field-Based Phenotyping Technologies
Goal: Test the hypothesis that variation in biomass growth rate can be explained by variation in photosynthetic rates and/or amounts of photo-protection. Data from a large, genetically diverse sorghum collection will be collected at multiple time points during the growing season using an automated high-throughput field-based plant phenotyping system. Identifying the genetic control of biomass growth rates will allow breeders to genetically "stack" genes that control maximal growth rates, thereby paving a path to producing higher yielding hybrids.
Cornell University The Genomic Basis of Heterosis in High-Yielding Triploid Hybrids of Willow (Salix spp.) Bioenergy Crops
Goal: Investigate how gene expression patterns in willow hybrids are related to yield potential and other traits important for biofuels production. Yield improvement in many crops has been based on capturing hybrid vigor (aka heterosis), but its complex genetic basis is poorly understood. In this project we will learn if there is a bias in the expression of key genes from one parent versus the other in species hybrids, and whether there is a gene dosage effect skewing gene expression patterns in triploid progeny compared with their diploid and tetraploid parents.
University of Georgia The Dual Effect of Tubulin Manipulation on Populus Wood Formation and Drought Tolerance
Goal: Determine how tubulin levels and/or tubulin protein modifications affect wood development and water use in Populus. Tubulin proteins form microtubule scaffolds which participate in cell wall biogenesis as well as regulate stomatal guard cell movements for photosynthesis and transpiration. This project will allow dissection of the contribution of tubulins to two inter-dependent processes, water utilization and the development of lignocellulosic biomass, which are relevant to bioenergy crop improvement.



As the Mid-West and many other regions of USA get to be drier and drier, will bio-mass continue to exist in large enough quantities to produce liquid fuels for our gas guzzlers, let alone producing enough food (specially beef meat) for 400 million overfed people?

This may be the time to start developing other alternative solutions using less biomass and not more.

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