OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Research to Boost Cellulosic Ethanol Programs

08/01/2008

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Scientists at Oregon State University have received two of the 10 federal grants to accelerate genomic research in cellulosic biofuel feedstock crops, which many believe will be the future of ethanol and an alternative to food-based biofuels.

The two grants, totaling $2.4 million, were just announced as part of a joint, $10 million program of the Department of Energy and U.S. Department of Agriculture. OSU, which has strong programs in both agriculture and genetic research, was the only university in the West to receive funding.

“Ethanol made from cellulose, instead of food crops such as corn, is clearly one direction the future of biofuels is headed,” said Todd Mockler, an assistant professor of botany at OSU. “These projects will all lay the groundwork for applied studies in this field, and give us the fundamental knowledge we need to make cellulosic ethanol more efficiently and help it become a working reality.”

Instead of being made from corn, biofuels can also be made from cellulose, the primary structural component of green plants and one of the most common organic compounds on Earth. The ethanol produced from cellulose is chemically identical to that from other sources, such as corn starch or sugar.

In one project at OSU, Mockler will lead a research team to make a DNA microarray for brachypodium, a small plant that is being used as a “model” for diverse genetic research in closely related grasses and cereal crops, such as switchgrass, that are believed to hold great potential as a cellulosic biofuel.

“For every model organism you need a microarray, it’s just one of the fundamental tools for genomic research,” Mockler said. “We will work with private industry to make the brachypodium microarray available to other researchers all over the world for biofuel and other agricultural research.”

In another project, led by OSU professor of forest science Steven Strauss, researchers will study the role of epigenetics in the development of poplar trees. Poplar, which is a fast growing tree that is already being used in plantations for pulp production, may be another potential cellulosic biofuel feedstock. Strauss is one of the world leaders in genetic research on forest crops.

OSU has wide ranging research programs in alternative and sustainable energy sources, including major programs in wave energy, biodiesel, the production of electricity from wastewater, wind energy, hydrogen fuel, and innovative new concepts in nuclear power.