South Dakota State University researchers have won a major federal grant to help them map the genes of prairie cordgrass, a native grass that could be used to make cellulosic ethanol.
Assistant professor Jose Gonzalez in SDSU’s Department of Plant Science leads a team that has received $420,000 to study prairie cordgrass over a two-year period starting Aug. 1. The study is one of 11 projects funded nationwide to promote biofuels research.
The grant is from a joint program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the federal Department of Energy.
Prairie cordgrass is one of the “big four” native grasses in South Dakota with potential as biomass feedstocks. The others include switchgrass, Indiangrass, and big bluestem.
“As a research team, SDSU plant breeders and biotechnologists, along with agronomists, are making strides to provide South Dakota’s bioenergy industry with superior cellulosic and starch-based feedstocks that will keep South Dakota at the forefront of innovation and production,” according to Gary Lemme, dean of SDSU's College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences. “The bioenergy industry is important to the economic future of South Dakota.”
Gonzalez said the objective of the new project is to develop the first genetic map for prairie cordgrass — essentially a road map of its genes.
By mapping which sequences of genetic material are responsible for certain traits, he explained, SDSU can help provide tools that scientists and plant breeders can use to more easily package those desired traits in plants through plant breeding.
“That’s our ultimate goal, to be able to find genes important for biomass production,” Gonzalez said. “It can be yield, but as with any other crop, it would also be resistant to diseases. It would also be chemical composition. For example, we want to reduce the amount of lignin in the dry matter.”
Biomass crops that are lower in lignin can be more efficiently processed to make ethanol, Gonzalez said.
Switchgrass has received much of the attention to this point for its potential as a biomass crop, Gonzalez said. But he said prairie cordgrass could be an even better fit for producers in the Northern Plains.
Even unimproved genotypes of prairie cordgrass have produced nearly 10 tons of dry matter in SDSU forage breeder Arvid Boe's experimental trials in recent years. That is roughly twice as much as the best switchgrass will produce in South Dakota.
Prairie cordgrass is found from Nebraska all the way north to Saskatchewan.
The new SDSU cordgrass study will be virtually all labwork.
“Basically what we are going to do is sample different pieces of the DNA, sort of at random. From those little sequences, we will find features of that sequence that will help us to create a landmark. Basically, if we continue with the roadmap analogy, these will be sort of the milestones in the road.”
SDSU’s work on prairie cordgrass will continue even after the two-year project is finished to create a linkage map.
“This is obviously a stand-alone project, but we want to consider it as part of a bigger effort we are doing at SDSU to develop prairie cordgrass as a biomass crop for the region, for the state,” Gonzalez said.
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