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A switchgrass common garden (left) and comparative images of the three ecotypes of switchgrass (right). Images modified from original photos by Robert Goodwin at MSU (left) and Jason Bonnette at UT Austin.

Research

Genetic Scientists in Alabama Are Looking At Biofuels From Switchgrass

Genetic researchers working at Huntsville’s HudsonAlpha Institute of Biotechnology played a major role in groundbreaking new research into fuel from plants that could wean America off of oil. Switchgrass, a plant that is native to America, is the focus of the scientists who published their findings in the January edition of the journal Nature.

The team created a high-quality map of switchgrass genes after a decade of study that used evolving genetic research technology. Maps like these will help speed up the breeding and growth of a plant that is what AL.com noted is a promising source of biofuel. When one thinks of biofuels, their minds often think of ethanol which is mixed with small amounts of gasoline.

Researchers pointed out that switchgrass is native to North America and is found everywhere from the east coast to the Rockies and from Canada to Mexico. It grows on “marginal land” and requires minimal work to produce. What it doesn’t do is take land or resources from food crop farming. This is a very good thing.

Switchgrass can’t survive those cold northern winters that those of us living in the South can’t fathom enduring. There is a solution, though. Transposing traits from one variety to another using gene editing could create a variety of switchgrass that can grow anywhere producing biomass that can be turned into biofuel.

In order to do this, researchers needed to see which regions produce useful traits. For them to learn this, they needed to create a reference point—this is where the genetic map of switchgrass comes in handy. This map took over a decade to create and involved researchers from HudsonAlpha, the University of Texas, the U.S. Department of Energy, and a few other centers.

What complicated the mapping of switchgrass genes was the fact that it has four copies of its nine chromosomes. Humans, by comparison, have two copies. Plant genomes have more variations per chromosome pair than human genomes.

Jane Grimwood and Jeremy Schmutz were the researchers that led the project and used the HudsonAlpha Genome Sequencing Center’s third-generation gene sequencing instruments. In a statement, Grimwood spoke of how the switchgrass expertise was born.

“In order to determine the genetic regions responsible for useful traits in switchgrass, researchers needed a reference point from which to identify differences between the varieties of switchgrass,” she said. “Our group sequenced the first version of the switchgrass genome in 2008, shortly after moving to HudsonAlpha. Then Jeremy met Tom Juenger at the first switchgrass meeting in 2012, and the collaboration between our genomics expertise and his switchgrass expertise was born.”

In Juenger’s lab at the University of Texas in Auston, the team mapped the genomes of over 700 different switchgrass plants. John Lovell, a senior scientist at HudsonAlpha and the first author of the paper in Nature, shared his thoughts in a statement.

“Genetic models are useful for gaining a foundational understanding of biology,” said Lovell. However, to actually accelerate breeding, we need to find genetic variants that are associated with yield in crop species. Now we can develop genome resources for nearly any species, allowing us to study them directly without the need for a less complex model.”

My Thoughts

They say money doesn’t grow on trees, but although switchgrass isn’t a tree, it’s just as abundant here in the South. I see it everywhere during the spring and summer. After reading that article and analyzing here, it made me curious just how to make ethanol from switchgrass. Although I don’t plan to start making my own fuels, it was an interesting thought that led to a Google search and the discovery of this simple how-to make your own ethanol from switchgrass article.

I guess if you know how to convert it, money does actually grow. Metaphysically speaking, money is just a form of energy like all things. So is currency. It’s just a matter of conversion.

 
Written By

Johnna Crider is a Louisiana native who likes crawfish, gems, minerals, EVs, and advocates for sustainability. Johnna is also the host of GettingStoned.online, a jewelry artisan and a $TSLA shareholder.

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