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DOE, USDA Pump $10M into Bioenergy Genomics Projects

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The US Department of Energy and the US Department of Agriculture have injected $10 million into new research projects seeking to harness knowledge about plant genomes to make them better resources of bioenergy and biofuels, DOE said yesterday.

Awarded under the DOE's Office of Biological and Environmental Research and USDA's Agricultural and Food Research Initiative, the eight grants are part of an Obama Administration initiative to accelerate the use of woody plant biomass as alternatives for fossil fuels.

The projects will use a range of genome-based approaches to find ways to enhance the biomass potential of several plant types, with an emphasis on trees and grasses.

Michigan Technological University will receive $1.1 million to discover and characterize novel genes and alleles that affect wood biomass yield and quality in Populous. The project will combine mutagenesis for functional identification of genes with next-generation sequencing to identify alleles with certain breeding values.

Michigan State University won $1.2 million to compare differential gene expression between tolerant and sensitive lines of lowland and upland switchgrasses to identify differences in abiotic stress gene networks. The project also will identify genes and germplasm that can improve cultivated switchgrass so that it can better tolerate such abiotic stresses.

Oregon State University landed a $1.4 million award to identify genome-wide functional gene networks and subnetworks in poplar that are also associated with abiotic stress tolerance and traits related to its use as a source of bioenergy. The research will involve computational projections, gene expression analysis, and experimental validation to develop poplar varieties that can thrive under abiotic stress on land that is not suitable for food crops.

The University of Texas, Austin won a $1.5 million grant to conduct genomic analyses to understand the growth and development of Panicum grasses, and to provide tools for predicting biomass and tissue-related phenotypes from genotypes. The researchers plan to seek out genes that are important for biomass production, tissue quality, and stress tolerance under diverse environmental conditions.

The University of Georgia received a $575,000 grant to study genes that can be used to make sorghum genotypes optimized for growing in a range of environments. Optimizing sorghum productivity in a range of temperate latitudes and environments and production systems may require substantial changes to the plants' genetic architecture, according to USDA and DOE.

Iowa State University will receive $1.4 million to study data from a large, genetically diverse sorghum collection to study variation in photoysynthetic rates and/or amounts of photo-protection. The research will involve identify the genetic controls of biomass growth rates, which could allow breeders to stack genes that control maximal growth rates.

Cornell University was awarded a $1.4 million grant to study how gene expression patterns in willow hybrids are related to yield potential and to other traits that are important for biofuel production. Cornell seeks to find out if there is a bias in the expression of key genes from one parent versus the other in certain hybrids, and whether a gene dosage effect can skew gene expression patterns.

The University of Georgia won a $1.5 million award to determine how manipulating tubulin levels in populous may affect wood formulation and drought tolerance. Tubulin proteins form microtube scaffolds that are involved in cell wall biogenesis and they help regulate stomatal guard cell movements for photosynthesis and transpiration. This study will enable researchers to understand the contribution tubulins make to water utilization and development of lignocellulosic biomass, both of which are involved in bioenergy crop improvement.

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