USDA, DOE fund further energy crop research

By Kris Bevill | August 12, 2011

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced Aug. 11 that his agency and the U.S. DOE will provide $12.2 million to fund 10 research projects focused on improving the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of various energy crops for biofuel production. The projects will utilize the most advanced genomics techniques to develop breeding strategies that will improve the potential for energy crops to be grown on marginal lands while still increasing their yield and quality.

Research projects will be conducted in nine states. Switchgrass will be the feedstock of focus in Oklahoma and Colorado. In Virginia and California, researchers will explore ways to improve poplar hybrids. Sorghum research will be conducted in Missouri, South Carolina and Kansas. Researchers in Illinois will further develop miscanthus while Florida researchers will focus on energy cane. One project in Missouri will focus more broadly on energy grasses in general, using genomics and genetics in the model grass Brachypodium distachyon to identify genes that control light perception and signaling that could be modified to increase yield and improve the composition of energy grasses.

Funding for the research projects is being distributed through the joint DOE-USDA Plant Feedstocks Genomics for Bioenergy research program. The competitive grant program was established in 2006 to support fundamental research in biomass genomics, with the ultimate goal being to develop and demonstrate environmentally acceptable crops and cropping systems for producing large quantities of biomass feedstocks. To date, 56 projects have received a total of approximately $52.3 million in funding through the program. This year’s award announcement marks the largest amount distributed for research through the program since its inception.

“Combining DOE’s leadership in genome-scale technologies with USDA’s experience in crop improvement will accelerate the efficient production of biofuels,” Vilsack said. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the projects could be instrumental in developing the best crops for biofuels production.

The DOE’s Office of Science is providing $10.2 million for eight of the projects while the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture will provide $2 million for two projects. The funding will support three years of research. Outlines of all 10 research projects can be viewed at the DOE’s Office of Science Genomic Science Program website