Colorado State University Biologists Tackle Bigger, Better Plants for Biofuels with $1.3 Million Grant from DOE, USDA

Note to Reporters: Photos are available with the news release at

Three Colorado State University plant biologists have received a $1.35 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to genetically engineer bigger and better plants that could provide more physical mass for biofuels.

The grant, which is part of the DOE’s Plant Feedstock Genomics for Bioenergy program, is one of only 10 grants awarded around the country this year and the only one in Colorado.

Leading the project are University Distinguished Professor Jan Leach and Associate Professor John McKay, both in the Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management, and Professor Daniel Bush in the Department of Biology. Other partners on the grant include representatives from the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, Virginia Tech and Rutgers University.

The question they must answer: Can they create “designer” grasses that produce more biomass per acre without the need for additional land?

“The idea is that you won’t need a bigger land mass for bioenergy crops such as sorghum or switchgrass – what we’ve learned in rice should help improve any one of those,” said Leach, the principal investigator on the grant. “The bulk of the energy in plant biomass is in cell walls, which in switchgrass is tightly packaged and tough to get out.

“Between the College of Agricultural Sciences and the College of Natural Sciences, we have an excellent combination of expertise in rice and quantitative genetics combined with physiology and biochemistry that’s related to bioenergy. We previously used that knowledge to identify promising genes for biomass production and will use the new grant to alter the same genes in switchgrass, which is a new energy crop,” Leach said.

According to the Department of Energy, the grant to Colorado State University is part of a broader effort by the Obama administration to develop domestic renewable energy and advanced biofuels, providing a more secure future for America’s energy needs and creating new opportunities for the American farming industry.

The Colorado State team received $1.5 million from the DOE and USDA in 2008 to investigate the cellulosic properties of rice that could increase productivity of the plant’s cell walls. Armed with that knowledge, they’re now turning to switchgrass, a non-food crop that is a much more difficult plant to breed and genetically engineer.

“No one ever thought of corn for ethanol as being a long-term solution because the bulk of the energy comes from seed, not from the plant walls,” said Daniel Bush, biology chair. “Switchgrass is one of the crops that has been identified as a ‘second-generation’ crop in Colorado.”

Biomass from bigger plants could also be helpful across the developing world: Accumulation of waste from rice is the No. 1 agricultural residue in the world.

“It’s not just the bioenergy here, but the bioenergy in the developing world,” McKay said. “There are components of rice that could benefit local villages that grow three crops a year. If they could harvest the plant leftovers and have a simple local system for producing biofuel, it could help the local economy.”

Ultimately, scientists agree that creating designer plants could help with a variety of other issues, such as pathogens that lead to disease.

For the full list of grant recipients and more information about the Plant Feedstock Genomics for Bioenergy program, go to