In the public realm at least, biofuels have been on a bit of a roller coaster ride over the last 12-15 years, as their promise becomes mired in politics and regional agriculture issues. But in research labs across the country and at UGA, scientists have held steady.
A newly published genetic sequence and map of foxtail millet, a close relative of switchgrass and an important food crop in Asia, is giving scientists working to increase biofuel and crop yields a powerful new tool.
Lead author Jeffrey Bennetzen, Giles Professor and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar of genetics in the UGA Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, said the sequence and map will allow scientists to systematically search for genes that influence traits such as disease resistance, drought tolerance, growth rate and cell-wall composition. Once those genes are identified, breeders can develop crops that require less water or pesticides, for example, or develop plants that can be easily converted into biofuels.
That researchers continue to find new pathways to better biomass feedstocks is itself very encouraging. Improving food production and renewable fuel possibilities without introducing competition between the two is a complicated challenge involving overlapping constituencies that requires patience, compromise and creative thinking. Scientists must work on constituent parts of this problem, of course, as do economists, politicians and others. The work by this team is a great example of building on established knoweldge and using it to unlock potential solutions. We may sometimes forget the parameters of the issues we need scientists to solve - finding routes to new fuel sources that are renewable, use less water and no pesticides. But they have continued to narrow down the problems and, one by one, remove barriers to breakthroughs. The quest to break down the lignin in plant cells is a component part of this larger challenge and this new work is evidence of progress.
Image: a foxtail millet (Setaria italica) panicle photographed by UGA's Katrien Devos.