UMass Amherst Biologist Will Improve Ethanol Yields from Energy Crops with Energy Department Grant
(University of Massachusetts Amherst) Detecting the genetic mechanism for how certain strains of the energy crop model systemBrachypodium can produce more ethanol than others is the aim of a new five-year, $750,000 Early Career Research grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to biologist Samuel Hazen at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Hazen’s grant from the DOE’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research is one of 65 awarded from approximately 1,150 applications across the country. In Massachusetts, UMass Amherst and MIT each had three laboratories receiving DOE early career grants this year.
Hazen and colleagues will use UMass Amherst’s own “Q Microbe,” a bacterium in the Clostridium genus discovered by microbiologist Susan Leschine near the Quabbin Reservoir, to digest stems of the grass Brachypodium, also known as purple false brome, in the laboratory. They’ll test hundreds of strains to select the highest-yielding, most efficient variants for energy production.
“We’ve found that different strains of Brachypodium are more digestible and produce 30 percent more ethanol than others, so it’s easier to make them into biofuels,” Hazen says.
Once the researchers have narrowed the field to a few of the most desirable strains, he adds, they will select several for further genetic analysis. “The goal is to identify the genetic mechanisms that confer these advantages and translate that knowledge into energy crop development. The amount of ethanol produced is the best indicator we have for selecting the most fuel-efficient variants. This is something plant breeders can actually select for, or that we can engineer in a laboratory in the future.”
Brachypodium is a small plant with a short life cycle that is easily grown in the laboratory, making it an excellent model for genetic and molecular biology research, Hazen points out. He and colleagues can grow a new generation in three months in the laboratory, compared to a full year required for other grasses. For this latest project, they also seek to identify variants that do not have negative characteristics such as dwarfism.
“We need to make sure that the most efficient strains for bioconversion are vigorous and high yielding in addition to being easy to convert to biofuels,” he says. “We need to make sure they’re as healthy and happy as plants can be.”
Hazen’s research group is well known for work to optimize the performance of cellulosic biofuels and for playing a key role in sequencing the genome ofBrachypodium. It is widely regarded as a promising model system for studying energy crop species that will provide alternative fuels to reduce our reliance on imported oil and for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. READ MORE