Genome Mapping to Biofuels

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Since at least the 1970's, University of Georgia researchers and engineers have been working on the many different facets of developing renewable energy sources, from biodiesel to fermentation, soil sequestration and more. The many different avenues provided opportunities for crucial bench-scale breakthroughs that have allowed further related research to flourish. That progress continues today:

Researchers at the University of Georgia have taken a major step in the ongoing effort to find sources of cleaner, renewable energy by mapping the genomes of two originator cells of Miscanthus x giganteus, a large perennial grass with promise as a source of ethanol and bioenergy.

Changsoo Kim, a postdoctoral research associate in the UGA Plant Genome Mapping Laboratory, identified a set of approximately 600 bits of Miscanthus DNA that can serve as diagnostic tools. The next step is to determine which pieces of DNA are diagnostic of genes that can make the plant an even better biofuel crop.

Kim's work-and the Plant Genome Mapping Laboratory-is led by Andrew Paterson, a Distinguished Research Professor who falls under the UGA departments of genetics and plant biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and crop and soil sciences in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

"What we are doing right now is taking the same individual plants that were used in the genetic map and measuring their height, flowering time, the size of their stalks, the dimensions of their leaves and how far they have spread from where they were planted," said Paterson, who is also a member of the Bioenergy Systems Research Institute. "And then one can use pretty straightforward statistics to look for correlations between bits of DNA and a trait."

With the new engineering degrees approved at UGA recently, it's important to remember that the Franklin College was instrumental in providing cross-disciplinary institutional support for growing engineering on campus in Athens, even ahead of wider availability of university resources for doing so. Former deans Wyatt Anderson and Garnett Stokes, specifically, recognized the implications of connecting educational opportunies to possibilities for further research by faculty from across different departments and even colleges. What's more, in all likelihood they and others understood that future innovations in renewable energy would depend heavily on just such interdisciplinary collaborations: and so these investments for joint-faculty positions and cross-disciplinary facilities, while visionary in one sense, probably also seemed practical in others.

Congratulations to Kim, Paterson and others who are moving toward sustainable solutions to the very complex quandaries facing not just scientists, but society. 

Image: Miscanthus growing in a field. Photo Courtesy of Mendel Biotechnology.

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