Noble Foundation receives funds to study switchgrass

By Ryan C. Christiansen | November 03, 2008
Web exclusive posted Nov. 14, 2008 at 10:33 a.m. CST

The National Science Foundation and the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education have awarded more than $1.2 million to scientists at The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Okla., an independent, nonprofit institute conducting plant science research.

The funding, provided through the Oklahoma Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), will enable the foundation to continue studies to improve varieties of switchgrass for the production of cellulosic ethanol. The Noble Foundation is developing new switchgrass varieties for ethanol production with Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma through the Oklahoma Bioenergy Center. As a member of the U.S. DOE Bioenergy Science Center, the foundation is also working with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Dr. Kiran Mysore has been awarded $549,973 for a six-year project beginning in 2008 and ending in 2013 to engineer switchgrass varieties that have a broad spectrum of disease resistance. Mysore said disease vulnerability is a very serious concern when one switchgrass variety is grown in monoculture over a long period of time. In the United States there are 42 species of fungi that can cause disease in switchgrass, one of the most ominous being smut disease caused by Tilletia maclaganii. To improve disease resistance in switchgrass, Mysore proposes to identify the genes that are involved in resistance against the rust fungus in the species Nicotiana benthamiana, a close relative of tobacco indigenous to Australia.

Dr. Zengyu Wang has been awarded $423,248 for a four-year project beginning in 2009 and ending in 2012 to work with other researchers within the Noble Foundation to explore the ability to increase lignin content in switchgrass, which will enable plant engineers to develop switchgrass feedstocks that are tailored for specific cellulosic ethanol conversion processes. "Increased lignin will be beneficial for the thermal (gasification) process," Wang said. "The gasification process readily converts all major components of biomass, including lignin, into clean synthesis gas." Wang also noted that lignin plays a significant role in the carbon cycle, sequestering atmospheric carbon into the living tissues of vascular plants. "Because lignin has much higher carbon content by weight than the other major cell wall constituents, biomass high in lignin will contain more carbon and energy," he said. The foundation has also studied and continues to develop ways to reduce lignin in switchgrass, mainly for the enzymatic hydrolysis and fermentation of switchgrass to produce ethanol.

Dr. Kelly Craven was awarded $251,931 for a five-year project beginning in 2008 and ending in 2012 to study the ability of endophytes to enhance switchgrass biomass, nitrogen content and drought tolerance. Endophytes are naturally occurring fungi that live between the cells of plants and form a symbiotic relationship, imparting desired characteristics such as drought tolerance, with their host plant.