Switchgrass is essential to the production of clean energy. If switchgrass could better endure northern United States’ winters, the plant could be an even better clean energy source. To that end, Michigan State University (MSU) will use $1 million from a joint U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program to develop hardier switchgrass.
Switchgrass has high potential as a biofuel source, which can be used in power generation. That is why Robin Buell, an MSU plant biologist, is working to identify the genetic factors that regulate cold hardiness in switchgrass. By studying switchgrass’ genetic composition, Buell hopes to identify alternative forms of the same gene that is responsible for cold hardiness, which could then be applied in breeding programs for switchgrass that can thrive in northern climates.
One of the proposed methods to increase the biomass of switchgrass is to grow lowland varieties in northern latitudes, where they flower later in the season. However, lowland switchgrass is not adapted to the colder conditions of a northern climate and only a small percentage of the plants survive.
“This project will explore the genetic basis for cold tolerance that will permit the breeding of improved switchgrass cultivars that can yield higher biomass in northern climates,” said Buell, who is also an MSU AgBio Research scientist. “It’s part of an ongoing collaboration with scientists in the USDA Agricultural Research Service to explore diversity in native switchgrass as a way to improve its yield and quality as a biofuel feedstock.”