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Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology

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The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded a five-year, $12.1 million grant to a multi-institutional effort to develop drought-resistant grasses for use in biofuels. The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis will lead the initiative with researchers from the Carnegie Institution for Science, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Minnesota and Washington State University.

The grant is timely, said U. of I. plant biology professor Andrew Leakey, whose lab will receive $1.8 million of the funding.

“The Midwest is in the midst of one of the worst droughts in decades,” he said, “and anything scientists can do to enhance a crop’s ability to endure such conditions will be a boon to agriculture in general.”

The 2012 drought season is on pace to be the most severe since the 1930s, due to a combination of extreme heat, lack of precipitation, and a mild winter. Over 60% of the country is currently in a state of drought, including all of Illinois.

Drought is the number one limiting factor of crop yields, and will continue to be of concern in relation to diminishing global water supply and climate change. Determining how to best engineer bioenergy crops for increased heat and drought resistance will make them more practical to produce and more attractive to farmers, guaranteeing an adequate supply.

The new research will focus on Setaria viridis, a grass that is closely related to next-generation biofuel feedstocks such as Miscanthus and switchgrass, as well as corn and wheat. S. viridis is particularly amenable to genetic analysis, allowing for ease of transformation and characterization of traits.

Leakey, a faculty member at the Institute for Genomic Biology, and his colleagues at Illinois will lead field experiments on a variety of Setaria plants to determine the genetic basis of drought tolerance in these and other closely related plants. (Watch a video about the research.)

Because SoyFACE has developed ways of simulating drought stress, differing CO2 concentrations, and elevated temperatures, it provides the perfect outdoor lab to test Setaria under a number of stressors. By planting a genetically diverse selection of Setaria plants, Leaky’s lab can compare the genetic markers of those that do well under drought stress to those that do poorly, allowing them to identify target genes for stress resistance.  

Meanwhile, Director of the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels Tom Brutnell will pursue genetic dissection of drought response in S. viridis. Brutnell, who is serving as Principal Investigator on this grant, will work with colleagues using computational and synthetic biology tools to produce one of the most extensive molecular characterizations of plant growth to date. In doing so, they will generate candidate genes to improve closely related bioenergy grasses, improving their yields and water efficiency.

“The opportunity to use the newest genomic and genetic tools available on this project provides an incredible opportunity for us to advance our understanding of the genes that confer drought tolerance to some C4 crops such as Miscanthus and switchgrass,” Leakey said. “Given the importance of C4 crops for fuel and food and the likelihood that droughts like those seen this year will become more frequent as the result of climate change, that’s an exciting prospect.”

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Genomic Ecology of Global Change
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