Grant to improve a sustainable biofuel source

Colorado State University is one of 10 institutions in a $13.8 million research grant to improve sorghum as a sustainable source for biofuel production.

Although most U.S. biofuels are currently made from corn, some sorghum varieties create more biomass for cellulosic ethanol, making it a top contender to replace corn-based biofuels and relieve pressure on an important global food source.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the five-year grant takes a comprehensive approach to better understand how plants and microbes interact, and which sorghum germplasm grows better with less water and nitrogen.

The research requires a range of expertise. CSU is working with scientists at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Danforth Plant Science Center, Washington State University, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Boyce Thompson Institute, Clemson University, Iowa State University and the DOE-Joint Genome Institute.

Taking a systems approach

To improve sorghum’s productivity with limited resources and high-stress conditions, the research team is taking a systems approach. Researchers across the country will investigate sorghum genetics as well as the soil microbes that interact with plants. The researchers are investigating strategies to increase plant biomass by improving water use and nutrient uptake efficiency.

The 10 institutions will take advantage of advances in marker-assisted breeding, metagenomics and computational genomic analysis. Geneticists will study sorghum varieties that use water and nitrogen more efficiently. At the same time, microbiologists will identify and characterize soil microbes that interact with and benefit sorghum, such as enhancing nutrient uptake, water-use efficiency and disease protection.

“Systems biology approaches to exploiting the efficient conversion of new sources of biomass to fuels is an important contribution that will be needed as we continue to collaborate extensively to provide alternatives to fossil fuels,” said Alan Rudolph, vice president for research at CSU.

Collaborating across disciplines will allow the team to experiment and find the genetic and microbial combinations with the greatest productivity benefits. The team also will create an extensive catalogue and repository of sorghum-related soil microbes and their genetic sequences as a resource for the scientific community.

CSU’s role

Jessica Prenni

Jessica Prenni, director of the Proteomics and Metabolomics Facility and associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, is co-investigator on the project. Her team will lead the metabolomics arm of the study.

“We will profile metabolites from sorghum leaves and roots to establish functional changes in metabolism or plant phytohormones that are related to physiological, growth characteristics and soil microbial communities,” Prenni said.

Prenni’s lab will explore the impact of different microbial communities in the soil to investigate how the plant’s metabolism reacts in different environments. This study will help determine sorghum’s ability to efficiently uptake nutrients from the soil or its reaction in drought conditions.