Research targeting plants that are grazed by animals has historically focused on reducing lignin production within the plant. However, increasing lignin in non-food crops, such as switchgrass, may be desirable for increasing the density of the biomass and producing more feedstock per plant and, therefore, more per acre.

"In switchgrass, as the plant matures, the stem becomes hollow like bamboo," Dixon said. "Imagine if you use this discovery to fill that hollow portion with lignin. The potential increase in biomass in these new plants could be dramatic. This technology could make plants better suited to serve as renewable energy sources or as renewable feedstocks to produce advanced composite materials that consumers depend on every day."

Additionally, further research with collaborators at the University of Georgia revealed that removal of the gene also can increase the production of carbohydrate-rich cellulose and hemicellulose material in portions of the plant stem. These are the components of a plant that are converted to sugars to create advanced biofuels, such as cellulosic-derived ethanol or butanol. More celluloses and hemicelluloses mean more sugars to use for carbohydrate-based energy production.

"Science often progresses in increments," Dixon said. "Every once in a while, though, you have a significant breakthrough that helps redefine the research. This is certainly one of those moments for our advanced feedstock program."

This project is supported by the United States Department of Energy and the Oklahoma Bioenergy Center. It builds upon decades of research by Dixon's group, which has already demonstrated the ability to reduce lignin in plants as well as modify its composition and characteristics.