The Texas AgriLife Research bioenergy program has been awarded a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to research plant breeding methods to produce high-yielding energy sorghum.

The research studies will encompass extensive work utilizing three energy sorghum varieties and screening for superior traits that would enhance yields, said Dr. John Mullet, lead researcher and AgriLife Research geneticist.

"We will map for stem biomass yield, structure and composition in three energy sorghum populations derived from diverse sorghum parental genotypes," Mullet said. "We will also develop information and biological resources that will enable positional cloning of genes and analysis of gene regulatory networks that modulate energy sorghum biomass yield, stem structure and composition. High biomass energy sorghum has excellent potential as a bioenergy crop."

"Texas AgriLife Research has a large bioenergy research program that addresses all segments of the value chain from the field to the fuel tank," said Bob Avant, AgriLife Research bioenergy program director. "Dr. Mullet’s research is a very important aspect of our program, and this grant will extend the reach of our program even farther."

To be viable, energy sorghum used for bioenergy requires high-plant density as well as high yields. AgriLife Research has successfully achieved yields of up to 20 dry tons per acre but there are challenges, such as removing water content prior to harvesting.

More than 1,000 late-flowering energy sorghum traits will be used in selecting 300 potential strains for variation of stem biomass yield, structure and composition.

Mullet said research on this species will provide fundamental information about the genomics of C4 grass energy crop design due to its high-tonnage potential. Yields of 20 dry tons to the acre can be achieved, he said.

Energy sorghum has excellent drought tolerance and high water-use efficiency, he said.

"These are critical attributes for production of bioenergy crops in marginal environments and where irrigation is either too expensive or would deplete water reserves," he said.

Energy sorghum has wide adaptation and is highly amenable to production and cultivation systems currently used by farmers in the U.S., which could lead to rapid adoption with low risk, Mullet said.

"Energy sorghum is a resilient, low-risk annual hybrid crop that can be used in normal crop rotations to maintain soil fertility, reduce pest pressures and meet annual variation in demand for biomass," he said.

"The extensive and diverse sorghum germplasm collection (up to 40,000 accessions) contains useful genetic variation for an array of bioenergy traits including biomass yield, composition and drought tolerance that can be mined and exploited for further improvement of energy sorghum."

The research grant was part of a group of grants awarded under a joint Department of Energy-USDA program focused on fundamental investigations of biomass genomics, with the aim of harnessing lignocellulosic materials (nonfood plant fiber) for biofuels production.

Emphasis is on perennials, including trees and other nonfood plants that can be used as dedicated biofuel crops, according to a joint statement. The $8.9 million investment is part of the Obama Administration's broader effort to diversify the nation's energy portfolio and to accelerate the development of new energy technologies designed to decrease the nation's dependence on foreign oil, according to agency officials.

"Developing a domestic source of renewable energy will create jobs and wealth in rural America, combat global warming, replace our dependence on foreign oil, and build a stronger foundation for the 21st century economy," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "This scientific investment will lay the foundation for a source of fuel made from renewable sources."

For more information about AgriLife Research bioenergy activities, visit http://agriliferesearch.tamu.edu/corporaterelations/programs/bioenergy/.

b-fannin@tamu.edu