Science Market Update

$14.3M DOE Multi-Lab Biofuel Research Grant Enables UN Reno to Study Drought Resistant Plants

Posted by BCI Staff on Thu, Oct 04, 2012

Watch out corn, you might just have some competition from the tequila plant in the modern day quest for biofuels. The DOE is funding a new $14.3M multi-lab project to study the CAM pathway in drought tolerant plants like agave, a hearty desert succulent. Dr. John Cushman in the department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Reno is receiving a new $7.6M grant, with a portion going to the University Liverpool in England as collaborators. The rest of the grant, $6.3M, is being divided between the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Newcastle University, and UT Knoxville. The name of this substantial new grant is: Engineering CAM Photosynthetic Machinery into Bioenergy Crops for Biofuels Production in Marginal Environments. Reno's high desert climate is an ideal center for this innovative biofuel research at a time when rainfall is becoming scarce and new solutions are going to have to be found if we plan to adapt to climate change. 

Much of the United States is currently experiencing drought conditions and has been for several years. With increasing average temperatures it is anticipated that much of the US will become normally drier in the future. This means less fertile land for farming, which poses a challenge for producing traditional biofuel products like corn. There is going to be a real need for plants that can grow in areas with less water. This DOE project looks to anticipate the coming weather and create fast growing, drought resistant plants for biofuel manufacturing.

According to Dr. Cushman:

"With climate change predictions for a 7 degree Fahrenheit (3.8 degree C) increase in temperature and a decrease in reliable precipitation patterns by 2080 for much of America's breadbasket, and with a greater need for sources of biofuels for transportation, these biodesign approaches to enhancing biomass production become very important."

In fact, the Cushman lab hopes to combine the traits of drought tolerant plants like agave with fast growing poplar trees. The poplar tree is ideal for this project because it can grown in poor soil, tolerate some dry conditions, and is very fast growing. Part of the poplar's appeal is its low energy requirements and ability to remove soil contaminants. But the current downside to the poplar tree is its C3 photosynthesis pathway. The poplar tree uses a C3 pathway to grow fast and photosynthesize. That means it uses more water than drought resistant plants.  This pathway opens the stomata of plants during the day time making them very vulnerable to high temperature. The higher the temperature, the higher the water loss the plants experience. In fact, C3 plants typically need 20-40 inches of water. Despite the poplar being somewhat drought tolerate, it still uses too much water because it opens its stomata during the hottest part of the day. To address this drawback, researchers are exploring the entire CAM pathway to figure out which pieces are essential and which ones can be altered.

The CAM pathway is how plants can survive in very dry places. The CAM plants need only 8-16 inches of rain per year -- much less than the C3 pathway plants. This happens because the CAM plant's stomata stays closed in the daytime when it is hottest, thereby reducing the daytime evaporation. Instead the stomata open at night when it is much cooler to absorb carbon dioxide. Once inside the plant the CO2 is held in a four-carbon acid malate form until ready for the sun and photosynthesis. This water saving could make a big difference in the future. Once the essential parts of the CAM pathway are found, they can be inserted into poplar trees to create a new nocturnal poplar tree that breaths at night instead of in the daytime.

Their hope is to create a super plant that can grow in arid climates but still produce a lot of new woody growth.

According to Anne Borland at Newcastle University:

"If successful, our research could lead to a poplar that requires up to 80 percent less water for biomass production and consequently will be able to grow in more marginal habitats. In the longer term, the technology has the potential to help tackle food security by maintaining the productivity of food crops in the drier and warmer world that climatologists predict for the next 60 years."

This new super plants could lead the way in the search for new efficient biofuels.The goal would be to harvest them and convert their material into biofuels that could run your cars, businesses and homes in the future. Unlike corn which is grown in fertile farm land, the hope for these new trees will grown on land that is unsuitable for traditional farming.

This project will help to position the University of Nevada as one the leading university biofuel research centers. The Cushman Lab is part the a state-of-the-art Renewable Energy Center at UNR. The center is divided into 5 different research groups:  Hydrogen Energy and Storage, Biomass and Biofuels, Geothermal Energy, Solar Energy, and Power Grid. Moreover, the facility has $37.6M in funding from current and pending grants in the 5 different research areas. The Renewable Energy Center is a "renewable energy education in Nevada, and through this collaborative we can work to make Nevada a powerhouse in renewable energy in the entire country,” according to Dr. Manoranjan Misra of the Nevada Institute for Renewable Energy Commercialization.

If you are a lab supplier or researcher looking to network in Reno, you can rest easy knowing that Biotechnology Calendar, Inc. will be holding its annual Reno BioResearch Product Faire Front Line event next on June 3, 2013. Biotechnology Calendar hosts trade shows at top research institutions across the nation, and attracts purchasing agents, professors, and lab managers from research institutions and universities. See our 2013 nationwide show schedule to find other shows in your area. Click the button below for a free funding report on UNR and information about exhibiting at the event:

nevada research

If you cannot attend the University of Reno show, these other shows in the region might be of interest to you:

Tags: 2012 Research Funding, University of Nevada, biofuels, UNR, Southwest, 2012, University Research, Funding, Research Funding, Front Line event, NV, new research grants, Reno

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