UNF researcher wins USDA grant to study switchgrass

By University of North Florida | June 19, 2019

As Americans burn through natural fuel sources, the United States government continues to seek alternative local fuel sources to lower our dependency on foreign oil and fossil fuels. Mike Aspinwall, an assistant professor of biology at the University of North Florida, was just awarded nearly half a million dollars from the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture to study switchgrass as a viable plant-based biofuel.      

Aspinwall, who is the lead researcher of this project, will work collaboratively with scientists from Michigan State University, University of Missouri and the University of Texas at Austin. The study aims to provide new insight into the factors that regulate the productivity and sustainability of switchgrass and will be funded for three years from a grant awarded to UNF totaling $462,500.

Switchgrass, which can grow as tall as six feet in one year, is the leading candidate crop for plant-based biofuel production. The U.S. Department of Energy started studying the species in the 70’s and 80’s, and the U.S. government has been interested in using the species as an alternative local fuel source to lower our dependency on foreign oil and fossil fuels.

“The project aims to determine how genetics and the environment interact to influence processes that regulate switchgrass productivity. Specifically, we’re examining how switchgrass populations from cool and warm parts of the United States respond to changes in temperature,” said Aspinwall, who noted his team will be examining how the physiology of these populations responds to temperature at different sites, specifically Michigan, Missouri and Texas.

As a native, wild species, switchgrass doesn’t require many resources like fertilizer. But given that the species has a huge range—Mexico to Canada, East of the Rockies—there’s tremendous genetic variation within the species, says Aspinwall.

For example, switchgrass from Texas looks and grows very different than switchgrass from Wisconsin. The differences are partly due to the climate that the populations are adapted to. However, Aspinwall and his team will be­ examining how adaptation to different climates influences switchgrass’ ability to tolerate and respond to changes in temperature.

The USDA grant will allow Aspinwall to hire postdoctoral research scientists to travel to the field sites. This team will be responsible for the majority of the field sampling, which will involve the use of portable photosynthesis systems, allowing Aspinwall and his team to measure temperature responses of photosynthesis and respiration.

“We can then compare how temperature responses change over space and time, and between different switchgrass populations,” he said.

As a result of his research, Aspinwall ultimately hopes to improve the understanding and forecasting of switchgrass productivity over space and time; deliver science-based knowledge for identifying switchgrass ‘genotypes’ capable of maximum productivity under current climatic conditions, as well as ‘climate-ready’ genotypes capable of adjusting to warmer and more extreme temperature conditions of the future; and provide data for bioenergy system models.

UNF, a nationally ranked university located on an environmentally beautiful campus, offers students who are dedicated to enriching the lives of others the opportunity to build their own futures through a well-rounded education.