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Michigan State awarded $1M to develop hardier switchgrass

31 July 2014

Michigan State University has been awarded $1 million from a joint US Department of Energy and US Department of Agriculture program to develop hardier switchgrass, a plant native to North America that holds high potential as a biofuel source.

If switchgrass could better endure northern United States’ winters, the plant could be an even better source for clean energy. To that end, Robin Buell, MSU plant biologist, will work to identify the genetic factors that regulate cold hardiness in switchgrass.

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. 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.

—Robin Buell

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, however, and merely a small percentage of the plants survive. It is these hardy survivors that are the subject of Buell’s research.

By studying switchgrass’ genetic composition, Buell hopes to identify alternative forms of the same gene that is responsible for cold hardiness. These could then be applied in breeding programs for switchgrass that can thrive in northern climates.

The research is an extension of Buell’s involvement in the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, a collaborative enterprise between MSU, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the US Department of Energy. that works to meet the nation’s need for a comprehensive suite of clean energy technologies.

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