Stayin’ alive: MSU research aims to help biofuel switchgrass survive northern winters

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MSU plant biologist C. Robin Buell (view larger image)

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan State University (MSU) plant biologist C. Robin Buell has been awarded $1 million from a joint U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program to accelerate genetic breeding programs to improve plant feedstock for the production of biofuels, bio-power and bio-based products.

Specifically, the MSU College of Natural Science researcher will work to identify the genetic factors that regulate cold hardiness in switchgrass, a plant native to North America that holds high potential as a biofuel source.

“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 Buell, also an MSU AgBioResearch 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, and therefore its utility as a biofuel, 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 many plants do not survive the winter. In most cases, a small percentage of the plants do make it through the season, and it is these hardy survivors that are the subject of Buell’s research.

“Dr. Buell’s investment in this collaborative project will identify important genetic elements in switchgrass that control survival over the winter and can be used to breed better adapted cultivars to meet biomass production needs,” added Richard Triemer, chair of the MSU Department of Plant Biology.

By studying the genetic composition of switchgrass, Buell said she hopes to identify alternative forms of the same gene that confer cold hardiness to switchgrass plants. These could then be applied in breeding programs to produce switchgrass plants 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 U.S. Department of Energy that works to meet the nation’s need for a comprehensive suite of clean energy technologies.

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MSU AgBioResearch engages in innovative, leading-edge research that combines scientific expertise with practical experience to generate economic prosperity, sustain natural resources and enhance the quality of life in Michigan, the nation and the world. It encompasses the work of more than 300 scientists in seven MSU colleges - Agriculture and Natural Resources, Arts and Letters, Communication Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Natural Science, Social Science and Veterinary Medicine - and has a network of 13 research centers across the state.

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