Colorado State Researchers Land Largest Single Grant to Study Biofuels

A team of Colorado State University researchers have been awarded $1.5 million to accelerate research in the development of new crops for cellulosic biofuels. Cellulosic biofuels, unlike ethanol derived from corn starch, are made from cellulose – a major component of cell walls in stems and leaves of all plants. Cellulose is superior to starch because there is much more energy available from it per plant.

The grants were announced yesterday by the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Department of Agriculture. Eight institutions received grants totaling more than $10 million. Colorado State received the largest single grant.

The CSU project will use rice instead of switchgrass and other promising biofuel crops in order to identify the genes that could increase productivity and access to the plant’s cell walls, which is the basis for cellulosic biofuels, according to Jan Leach, a professor in the Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management. Leach will be heading up the DOE-USDA research effort. "The goal of our DOE-USDA project is to identify genes that are important in optimizing the productivity and accessibility of plant cellulosic biomass. We are using rice as a model, because of the rich information available from the genome sequencing projects and the availability in rice of many tools and genetic resources," Leach said. "Most of the target biofuel crops, such as switchgrass, do not have the wealth of tools and information that rice has, so it would take much longer to characterize the biomass accumulation processes in those crops than rice."

The use of rice as a source for biofuels also has practical applications. Rice is widely grown in many developing countries and is the primary source of calories for about 40% of the world population. About half of the agronomic crop waste produced worldwide is rice straw, which represents a biofuel feedstock for energy production in resource poor communities.  Thus, new advances using rice as a biofuel model would translate into direct applications on a global scale for this important food crop, according to Leach.

"While rice is a food crop – and a widely grown one at that – it is the information from its genes that could speed the development of new crops for cellulosic biofuels," Leach said. "We are not promoting rice as a biofuel crop.  We are instead using information from its ‘genes’ to help expedite the improvement of other plants such as switchgrass."  

Leach is joined on the project by two additional CSU faculty members, Daniel Bush, a professor in the Department of Biology, and John McKay, a professor in the Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management, as well as Hei Leung, plant pathologist at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.