Study: Grass Could Provide Renewable Energy Source

Photo: Susan Lucas, head of the sequencing department at the Joint Genome Institute, holds a tuft of Brachypodium distachyon, a simple type of grass. Researchers at the institute hope to create biofuels from a variety of grasses.
Allyse Bacharach/Photo
Susan Lucas, head of the sequencing department at the Joint Genome Institute, holds a tuft of Brachypodium distachyon, a simple type of grass. Researchers at the institute hope to create biofuels from a variety of grasses.

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Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy have concluded experiments on a type of grass that they say could eventually lead to new sources of renewable energy.

In a study published Feb. 11 in the journal Nature, researchers from the department's Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, which is managed in part by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, sequenced a form of wild grass in order to derive a genome specifically adapted for biomass and biofuel production.

Researchers would then be able to understand more complex grasses and potentially harvest them for biofuels according to John Vogel, a molecular biologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and one of the lead researchers for the institute.

"Grasses are likely to play a significant role in the transition toward a more carbon-neutral and sustainable source of starting material ... for next-generation cellulosic biofuels," said David Gilbert, spokesperson for the institute, in an e-mail.

Todd Mockler, assistant professor of botany and plant pathology at Oregon State University said in an e-mail that as of now, corn has been the main source of renewable energy in the U.S. He added that by using grass rather than corn, farmland that the corn is grown on will be saved for supplying food rather than energy.

According to Vogel, researchers can generate energy by using the cellulose locked inside the walls of the grass cell. Because cellulose inside grass is difficult to extract and investigate, it is an intricate process.

Though researchers successfully sequenced the genome of Brachypodium distachyon, a simple type of grass, they are hoping to use it as a model to sequence more complex types of grass, which can yield more energy.

"Knowing the biological functions of Brachypodium genes will give insights into the functions of similar genes in other grasses, such as switchgrass or wheat," said Mockler. "When we understand how genes function as part of a biological system we can begin to understand how to improve the system."

Vogel said that Brachypodium is more economically feasible because it is perennial, which means it comes back year after year without having to be planted.

"(It can) be grown with minimal inputs of water and fertilizer, and (it doesn't) compete with food crops," added Gilbert.

Mockler said that in addition to the short-term benefits of Brachypodium to the institute's research, it also has the potential for long-term benefits.

"It will lead to improved varieties of grass bioenergy crops as well as improved food crops," he said in the e-mail. "For example, (it can lead to) improved varieties of important cereals such as wheat."

Vogel said the sequencing of Brachypodium will substantially affect researchers conducting future studies.

"The use of brachypodium is really growing exponentially, so it is going to be a big change in the coming years," he said.


Contact Jasmine Mausner at [email protected]

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