Department of Crop Sciences

DOE Grant to Develop Miscanthus

$1.5 Million DOE Grant to Study Beneficial Bioenergy Crop Traits

With ever-rising prices at the gas pump, U.S. reliance on foreign fossil fuels is leading many researchers to study bioenergy crops as alternative energy sources.

A $1.5 million grant from the United States Department of Energy (DOE) will pave the way to improving a major bioenergy crop, Miscanthus. The University of Illinois is one of six universities collaborating on this international effort. Erik Sacks, U of I assistant professor in the Department of Crop Sciences, is the principal investigator of this project.

“Farming perennial warm-season grasses, such as Miscanthus, could help us reduce our reliance on foreign fossil fuels, and improve the environment by sequestering carbon and building soil,” Sacks said.

M. xgiganteus (Mxg) is an ideal bioenergy crop because of its high yields, few inputs and flexible growing season. Currently, only one sterile variety of Miscanthus is propagated in the United States. Researchers believe reliance on one variety puts the entire crop at risk from disease or insects due to a lack of genetic diversity.

This $1.5 million grant will fund a 3-year investigation of the evolution and genetic diversity of Miscanthus. Researchers will identify genes and molecular markers associated with beneficial traits that will improve the crop’s efficacy, Sacks said. Key traits to be evaluated include yield, stability, flowering time, overwintering ability, low temperature photosynthesis and leaf extension, and drought tolerance.

“We hope our findings will promote the development of Miscanthus by increasing its breeding efficiency,” he said. “Eventually, breeders will be able to select seedlings with key traits using marker-assisted breeding as opposed to two or three years of field evaluations. New Miscanthus varieties will be created using the best parent crosses.”

This grant is one of 10 in a $12.2 million effort to improve the production of bioenergy crops by the DOE and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in conjunction with the Obama Administration’s greater effort to develop domestic energy sources and provide new opportunities for agriculture.

“Developing new, improved varieties of Miscanthus could reduce U.S. dependence on foreign fuels and provide agriculturalists with a good crop alternative in addition to building topsoil and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions,” Sacks added.

Scientists in this study, “Quantifying phenotypic and genetic diversity of Miscanthus sinensis as a resource for knowledge-based improvement of M. xgiganteus (M.sinensis x M.sacchariflorus),” include Sacks, J. Brummer of Colorado State University, M. Hall of UC Berkeley, S. Long of the University of Illinois, J. Peng of Wuhan Botanical Garden, T. Yamada of Hokkaido University, and C.Y. Yu of Kangwon National University.