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Pursuing Abundance: USDA, DOE Invest $41M to Drive Biofuels Feedstock Yields, Diversification

In Washington, new weekly statistics that will be released by the US Drought Monitor this and next week are expected to show that recent rains are beginning to ease drought conditions in the Midwest.

Accordingly, corn futures have begun to back of substantially from their record highs last week (reaching $8.34, but now down to $7.88 for the July contract and $6.64 for the September contract on CBOT.

But the impact of drought has focused increasing attention on feedstocks — especially novel feedstocks.

What are we doing about drought-resistance and heat-tolerance? What are we doing about diversifying beyond potentially scarce feedstocks that are shared with food and feed markets?

As Raymond James analyst Pavel Molchanov wrote in a research note this week on Ceres: “Intensely hot summers are becoming a reality that crop growers — and biofuel producers — have to address. In this context, energy crops provide a vital source of feedstock diversification, especially given that these crops, as a rule, provide a higher degree of drought resistance than, say, sugarcane. With this in mind, the Brazilian government is starting to encourage growers to adopt sweet sorghum. As part of a broader loan package for the agricultural sector, R270 million is allocated to sweet sorghum plantings.”

Out of 60 active feedstocks under development for biofuels, the USDA and DOE answered some of those questions this week by announcing a $41 million investment in 13 projects that will drive more efficient biofuels production and feedstock improvements.

In all, 13 feedstocks were the subject of the new research initiatives — almost one-quarter of the feedstocks out there as a whole received a boost.

The main thrust: reinforcing biofuels’s primary driver of yield and value — genomics.

Toolkits for analysis, yield improvements, and identifying target genes are common themes in the projects. A regular refrain:” “poorly understood,” reminding us that as much as bioenergy as a system, and crops as a system are increasingly understood, we are just beginning to scratch the potential in our understanding of feedstocks, and biofuels itself — as a system of systems.

New Biomass Research and Development Initiative Investments

Through the joint Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDI), USDA and the Energy Department announced five new feedstock cost-share projects.

Quad County Corn Cooperative ($4.25 million — Galva, Iowa)

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 — Peoria, Illinois)

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 — Findlay, Ohio)

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 — Madison, Wisconsin)

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 — Manoa, Hawaii)

This project will optimize the production of grasses in Hawaii, including napier grass, energycane, sugarcane, and sweet sorghum. Harvest and preprocessing will be optimized to be compatible with the biochemical conversion to jet fuel and diesel.

The project will seek to develop high-yielding biofuel feedstocks that are economically viable and sustainable; to establish advanced local biofuel production processes; and to guide development of an advanced biofuel supply chain. CTAHR faculty from the departments of Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering, Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences, and Natural Resources and Environmental Management are partnering with researchers from Oregon State and Washington State University and with ZeaChem, Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company, and Hawai‘i BioEnergy LLC.

It will also develop ways to assess the sustainability of renewable energy production in Hawai‘i, focusing on investigating the development of a rural-based decentralized pre-processing system.

Leveraging Genomics for More Efficient, Cost-Effective Bioenergy

Also, the Energy Department and USDA announced $10.1 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.

Functional Gene Discovery and Characterization of Genes and Alleles Affecting Wood Biomass Yield and Quality in Populus

Victor Busov, Michigan Technological University, Houghton $1,097,567

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.

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Identifying Differences in Abiotic Stress Gene Networks between Lowland and Upland Ecotypes of Switchgrass

Kevin Childs, Michigan State University, East Lansing $1,246,093

Goal: 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.

Poplar Interactome for Bioenergy Research

Pankaj Jaiswal, Oregon State University, Corvallis $1,362,045

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.

The Genetics of Biofuel Traits in Panicum Grasses: Developing a Model System with Diploid Panicum hallii

Thomas Juenger, University of Texas, Austin $1,465,840

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.

Genomics of Bioenergy Grass Architecture

Andrew Paterson, University of Georgia, Athens $575,000

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.

Genetic Architecture of Sorghum Biomass Yield Component Traits Identified Using High-Throughput, Field-Based Phenotyping Technologies

Patrick Schnable, Iowa State University, Ames $1,425,000

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.

The Genomic Basis of Heterosis in High-Yielding Triploid Hybrids of Willow (Salix spp.) Bioenergy Crops

Lawrence Smart, Cornell University, Ithaca NY $1,365,673

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.

The Dual Effect of Tubulin Manipulation on Populus Wood Formation and Drought Tolerance

Chung-Jui Tsai, University of Georgia, Athens $1,496,000

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.

This article was originally published on Biofuels Digest and was republished with permission.

Lead image: Money pile via Shutterstock

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