U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research

BER Research Highlights

Modified Switchgrass: Success in Biofuel-relevant Characteristics
Published: January 03, 2017
Posted: May 09, 2017

Field site for studying switchgrass species with enhanced biofuel-relevant characteristics [Image courtesy of BESC]

Introduced traits remain stable for improved biofuel production in a field setting.

The Science  
The development of near-term fossil fuel alternatives is needed to reduce carbon emissions and to ensure U.S. energy security. Switchgrass, a biofuel feedstock (biological material that can be converted into a fuel), is a perennial grass that is able to grow on marginal lands and has served as an adaptable lignocellulosic bioresource. Due to its complex composition, the plant cell wall is resistant to deconstruction to its component sugars, known as recalcitrance. Overcoming this recalcitrance is necessary to enable the economic feasibility of biofuel production. In this study, researchers evaluated the physiological and chemical effects of genetically modified switchgrass lignin in a three year field study.

The Impact
Using a genetically modified line of switchgrass a team of scientists was able to demonstrate that biofuel-relevant characteristics remained stable while recalcitrance was reduced after three generations in the field. This is a vital step towards understanding how to overcome the recalcitrance problem and thus has the potential to reduce economic barriers to cost-effective biofuel production.
The plant cell wall is primarily made up of three biopolymers: lignin, hemicellulose, and cellulose. Lignin’s complex architecture provides structural support and pathogen defense, but it is due to these functions lignin is considered a major contributor to recalcitrance. Researchers at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) BioEnergy Science Research Center (BESC) silenced the caffeic acid O-methyltransferase (COMT) gene in the lignin biosynthesis pathway and demonstrated over three growing seasons that the genetically modified plants retained both reduced cell wall recalcitrance and lignin content in comparison to the non-transgenic controls. A 35-84% higher sugar release was reported in the lignin modified plants after a 72-h enzymatic hydrolysis without pretreatment and a 25-32% increase in enzymatic sugar release (after hydrothermal pretreatment). For years 2 and 3 in the field, lignin modified plants had 12% and 14% reduced lignin content, respectively. This study demonstrated the important traits associated with the COMT-silenced field-grown switchgrass are an increase in cell wall accessibility for sugar release and a reduction in lignin content. These traits were able to remain durable in the field for 3 years in field trials. This research helps to provide a mechanistic understanding of lignin modified switchgrass relevant to DOE’s energy and environmental missions.

Kent Peters, Ph.D.
Program Manager Biological Systems Sciences
Division Office of Biological and Environmental Research
Office of Science 
U.S. Department of Energy

(PI Contact)
Arthur Ragauskas

This work was supported by the BioEnergy Science Center, a U.S. Department of Energy Bioenergy Research Center supported by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research in the DOE Office of Science under Contract No. DE-AC05-00OR22725.

M. Li, Y. Pu, C. Yoo, E. Gjersing, S.R. Decker, C. Doeppke, T. Shollenberger, T.J. Tschaplinski, N.L. Engle, R.W. Sykes, M.F. Davis, H.L. Baxter, M. Mazarei, C. Fu, R.A. Dixon, Z. Wang, C.N. Stewart, and A.J. Ragauskas, “Study of traits and recalcitrance reduction of field-grown COMT down-regulated switchgrass.” Biotechnology for Biofuels 10, 12 (2017) [DOI: 10.1186/s13068-016-0695-7] (Reference link)

Related Links
BESC: Biomass formation and modification

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Plant Systems and Feedstocks, Plant-Microbe Interactions
  • Research Area: Sustainable Biofuels and Bioproducts
  • Research Area: DOE Bioenergy Research Centers (BRC)
  • Research Area: Biosystems Design

Division: SC-23.2 Biological Systems Science Division, BER


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