SDSU studies cordgrass as potential biofuel feedstock

By Kris Bevill | February 03, 2011

A team of researchers led by South Dakota State University plant geneticist Jose Gonzalez recently concluded research partially funded by the USDA and the U.S. DOE aimed at sequencing genes in a previously un-researched potential biofuel feedstock— prairie cordgrass. This information can be used to better inform future genetic alterations of the feedstock, producing better quality plants for biofuel production.

Gonzalez said gene sequencing is the first step toward improving crop genetics. “It is a beginning, an initial basic information gathering,” he said. “If we want to look at genes that control certain traits and use them for crop improvement, the first thing we need to know is the sequence of those genes.” Prairie cordgrass was selected for research because of its adaptability to various climates and tolerance to marginal and poor soil conditions. Like switchgrass and corn, prairie cordgrass begins growing as soon as snow melts in the spring and continues to grow until the very end of the growing season, Gonzalez said. However, unlike switchgrass, which prefers higher-quality land conditions, cordgrass grows very well on marginal lands and in soils that contain high amounts of salts. These qualities make cordgrass a very attractive feedstock for growers in a variety of North American climates who own marginal land that is otherwise not usable, he said.

In addition to providing data that can be used to develop more durable crop varieties, mapping gene sequences can provide information that could aid in developing more efficient technologies to break down the plant’s cell walls for biofuel production. Gonzalez is currently collaborating on a U.S. Department of Defense-funded project focused on separating the lignin from the cellulose and hemicellulose in cordgrass to ultimately produce jet fuel from the lignin and ethanol from the cellulose and hemicellulose. SDSU researchers are also studying the rhizome development in cordgrass to better understand its underground development. Better rhizome development equals better yields on the top-side, Gonzalez said, which will in turn result in more economical biofuel production.