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GIANT : Genetic improvement of miscanthus as a sustainable feedstock for bioenergy in the UK


1 April 2011 - 31 July 2016


Mapping Miscanthus

19 March 2012


Researchers at Aberystwyth University and in the United States have collaborated to complete the first high-resolution, comprehensive genetic map of a promising energy crop called miscanthus.


The results – published in the current edition of the peer-reviewed, online journal PLoS One – provide a significant breakthrough towards advancing the production of bioenergy.


The breakthrough results from the long-term collaboration between energy crop company Ceres, Inc., based  in  Thousand Oaks, California, USA,  and the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth.


The IBERS team created the collection of genetically related plants and Ceres then sequenced and analysed the DNA. In other  crops, this type of comprehensive genetic mapping has significantly shortened product development timelines.


As published in the journal article, Ceres researchers mapped all 19 chromosomes of miscanthus, a towering cane-like grass that can be used as a feedstock for advanced biofuels, bio-products and bio-power. The multi-year project involved generation  and analysis of more than 400 million DNA sequences creating a blueprint of the genetic alphabet of the plant.


Among the massive volumes of data, researchers found 20,000 genetic differences, called markers, that allow geneticists to differentiate individual plants based on small variations in their DNA. More than 3,500 of these markers were used to create the genetic map, and are valuable for crop improvement purposes. In contrast, previously announced mapping projects discovered only about 600 markers and did not fully characterise the structure of all the miscanthus chromosomes, a necessary step in establishing a high-tech plant breeding program.


Ceres Chief Scientific Officer Richard Flavell, PhD, FRS, CBE says that the rapid improvements in breeding made possible by this mapping project are needed for miscanthus to be more widely used as an energy crop. While it has been grown on a small scale across Europe for two decades, primarily for electricity generation, large-scale commercial production is not economically viable at this time due to high production costs and few commercially available miscanthus cultivars.


“By defining the genetic diversity  in  our  germplasm  collections  with  the  new  DNA  markers,  we  can more rapidly introduce important crop traits into our new, seed-propagated miscanthus products,” said Flavell. He explained that unlike the most popular current miscanthus that is vegetatively propagated, Ceres’  seeded  types  are  expected  to  require  significantly  less  time,  effort  and  money  to  be  bred  for different  environments  and  to  be  established  by  growers. Ceres  is  currently  evaluating  its  improved seeded miscanthus varieties in multiple locations.


Professor  Iain  Donnison, head  of  the  bioenergy  team  at  IBERS,  notes  that,  in  addition  to  its  use  in developing  new  products,  the  mapping  project  has  provided  greater  insight  into  how  the  miscanthus genome  compares  to  other  well

-understood  crop  plants. Previously,  most  miscanthus  research  had been focused on field trials, and little was known about its genetics.


“The joint miscanthus development programme with Ceres has provided new insight into the evolution of the species as well as the similarities and differences in populations across different countries and environments,”  said  Donnison. “This  rich  library  of  information  took  decades  to  produce  in  other crops, but with modern biology and genomics technology Ceres and IBERS have put together what I believe is one of the world’s most comprehensive marker-based breeding programs in miscanthus.”


The  collaborative  research  received  funding  as  part  of  the  Biotechnology  and  Biological  Sciences Research  Council  Sustainable  Bioenergy  Centre  (BSBEC). This  innovative  academic-industry research  partnership  underpins development  in  the  important  and  emerging  bioenergy  sector. Both Ceres and IBERS are contributing members of BSBEC.


Professor  Douglas  Kell,  Chief  Executive  of  the  Biotechnology  and  Biological  Sciences  Research Council,  noted: “This partnership  between  academia  and  industry  makes  a  significant  contribution towards  achieving  sustainable  feed-stocks  for  renewable  energy  and  other  bio  derived  products. A genetic  map  paves  the  way  toward  breeding  improvements  to  increase  the  amount  of  sunlight captured, the amount of carbon that can be assimilated over a growing season and the partitioning of the carbon in harvested biomass. This research is an important step towards improving yields for bio feedstocks without increasing inputs.”


“The collaboration between IBERS and Ceres is a great example of how industry and academia can work together to increase the commercial potential of the UK’s research resources, both at home and internationally,” said Kell.


The full journal article can be found here.


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