Midwest drought propels biofuel research

Fires, drought and more than 4,000 broken temperature records have made the summer of 2012 particularly noteworthy. But the unshakeable heat has provided the impetus to push research in alternative fuel sources and bioenergy in a different direction.

The Department of Energy awarded a $12.1 million grant toward research into drought-tolerant grasses as a sustainable bioenergy source. The five-year project will be headed by the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis in collaboration with the University, the Carnegie Institution for Science, the University of Minnesota and Washington State University.

Andrew Leakey, whose lab will be receiving a portion of the funding here at the University, said work has already begun to get the project rolling and its timing was perfect.

“There are two real purposes for approving the grant. The first is that the drought is the No. 1 thing globally affecting crops. It’s going to be a real challenge to agriculture for a long time,” Leakey said. “The other element is that in order to provide enough food and fuel for ourselves, we need to make as much use of the land as possible.”

The lab will be using a panel of 200 hundred genome types of Setaria viridis, a plant closely related to already prominent bioenergy feedstocks, such as switchgrass and even corn. These grasses are then exposed to wet and dry conditions, and they are assessed for the greatest fertility. Those grass types that are most successful under drought-like conditions are then screened for the genetic sequences responsible for their tolerance of drought.

“If we can identify the genes that make (Setaria) drought tolerant, we can develop other drought tolerant crops (because) those genes are probably present in those other closely related types of grasses,” Leakey said.

The initiation of the project is opening many doors of opportunity for undergraduates interested in research, Leakey added.

Stephanie Klein, senior in LAS, is one of Leakey’s undergraduate research assistants who has been heavily involved in the preliminary work that has been done so far, such as laying out the plots for the panels of Setaria and sampling the genetic material.

“I think it’ll be interesting to see how different environments change how genes express themselves,” Klein said. “Bioenergy resources are a big talking point in today’s economy and political discourse. So I think my involvement in this project is very worthwhile because it’s a part of something so ground breaking.”

Undergraduates aspiring to work in the industry or pursue graduate work have been critical resources for carrying out the project, Leakey said, and was the reason why the University is one of the collaborators.

“It’s a two-way street: We have the resources and people to carry out this research, and the students have this wonderful opportunity to be a part of something exciting,” Leakey said.