Federal researchers have been hard at work trying to develop alternate sources of clean renewable energy, and yesterday they announced a major breakthrough in their efforts.
Scientists from the Agriculture Department and the Energy Department’s Joint Genome Institute for the first time have sequenced the genes of a wild grass species. The research, which is published in the current issue of the journal Nature, will help researchers develop grasses specifically tailored for use as biofuel, said Molly Jahn, Agriculture’s acting undersecretary for research, education and economics.
Energy security looms as one of the most important scientific challenges of this century. This critical research will help scientists develop switchgrass varieties that are more suitable for bioenergy production by identifying the genetic basis for traits such as disease resistance, drought tolerance and the composition of cells.
A major stumbling block in using switchgrass or any perennial grass as a biofuel crop is the difficulty in breaking down its cell walls, an essential step in producing ethanol from cellulosic biomass, said John Vogel, a molecular biologist at the Agricultural Research Service who is leading the research effort. By mapping the genetic code of the wild grass, which goes by the scientific name Brachypodium distachyon, scientists will be better able to produce grasses with cell walls that are easy to break down.
Vogel discusses the project further in a video, posted below.