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Researchers seek to improve drought resistance of biofuels crops

A new multi-institutional initiative will search for the genetic basis of drought resistance in a grass closely related to current biofuels feedstocks and food crops.

Thanks to a new five-year, $12.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, the team will dissect the genetic basis of drought tolerance in these plants. The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis will lead the initiative with researchers from the Carnegie Institution for Science, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Minnesota and Washington State University.

The new project is timely, said U. of I. plant biology professor Andrew Leakey, whose lab will receive $1.8 million of the funding.

"The Midwest is in the midst of one of the worst droughts in decades," he said, "and anything scientists can do to enhance a crop's ability to endure such conditions will be a boon to agriculture in general."

The new research will focus on Setaria viridis, a grass that is closely related to next-generation biofuel feedstocks such as Miscanthus and switchgrass, as well as corn.

Leakey and his colleagues at Illinois will lead field experiments on a variety of Setaria plants to determine the genetic basis of drought tolerance in these and other closely related plants. (Watch a video about the research.)

"The opportunity to use the newest genomic and genetic tools available on this project provides an incredible opportunity for us to advance our understanding of the genes that confer drought tolerance to some C4 crops such as Miscanthus and switchgrass," Leakey said. "Given the importance of C4 crops for fuel and food and the likelihood that droughts like those seen this year will become more frequent as the result of climate change, that's an exciting prospect."


Contact: Diana Yates, Life Sciences Editor
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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