UGA researchers' gene map to speed biofuel development

Researchers at the University of Georgia have mapped a gene in a perennial grass that is a strong candidate as a bio-fuel source. This map allows them pinpoint when the flowering process happens in the grass, prevent it from happening, and in return grow a stronger fuller grass that creates more biomass for biofuel.
Written by Ina Muri, Weekend Editor

Researchers at the University of Georgia have mapped the genomes of a large perennial grass that can be used as a source for bio-energy, EarthSky reports.

Miscanthus, a candidate for biomass farming, is a sugar-cane like stalks that can grow more than 12 feet in height, requires little fertilizer and grows well in moist temperate climates across the United States, Europe and in Asia. In Eastern Europe, it can produce more biomass on less surface areas than any other bio-fuel crops. Researchers say the crop is carbon neutral because it removes carbon from the atmosphere when it grows and only releases the carbon it collected when it is burned.

Changsoo Kim, a postdoctoral research associate in the UGA Plant Genome Mapping Laboratory, identified a set of almost 600 bits of Miscanthus DNA the can serve as a diagnostic tool. Kim's work is led by Andrew Paterson--a Distinguished Research Professor who falls under the UGA departments of genetics and plant biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and crop and soil sciences in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

This genetic map will allow Kim and Paterson to locate the Miscanthus genes responsible for flowering and prevent it from happening too early in the growing season. They say they want to delay the flowering process because it requires nutrients and energy that the plant would otherwise use to grow taller and thicker stalk and leaves. In return, this will leave farmers with taller and heartier plants  that will yield the most biomass possible

" What we are doing right now is taking the same individual plants that were used in the genetic map and measuring their height, flowering time, the size of their stalks, the dimensions of their leaves and how far they have spread  from where they were planted," Paterson said. " And then one can use pretty straightforward statistics to look for correlations between bits of the DNA and a trait."

This development has caught the attention of venture capitalists and biotechnology companies that hope to make Miscanthus farming a profitable and widespread practice. Mendel Biotechnology, a distributor of of plants and seeds that have been been enhanced by genetic research, have partnered with the Kim and Paterson on their project and say that this genetic map has saved them for many years of field research to improve Miscanthus on their own.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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