Biomass Optimization

The TIMBR Biomass Optimization team focuses on the development and augmentation of non-food agricultural feedstocks to supply biomass for conversion to advanced biorenewable fuels and chemicals. The research of these investigators is centered on the development of sustainable, cellulosic feedstocks with maximal biomass yield to achieve the estimated one billion dry tons of biomass necessary to achieve the Federal goal of displacing 30% of the country’s current petroleum consumption by 2030.   Cellulosic biomass circumvents the socio-economic viability issues related to the use of corn and other edible plants as feedstocks. The development of cellulosic feedstocks to date has been limited due to the lack of research for establishing desirable agronomic traits in these plants.  Commercial food crop challenges pertaining to factors such as biomass yield, disease and stress resistance have been thoroughly addressed and significantly improved over the past half century.  These topics are just now coming to the forefront for cellulosic biomass. 

A key objectives of this team is to develop a well-defined model grass system to accelerate the development of cellulosic feedstocks.  Their research focuses on two major hurdles:

  • develop non-food crop feedstocks that provide sufficient biomass yields to meet the demands of the 2030 goals
  • introduce traits into feedstock species that make the biomass less recalcitrant to biological conversion.

Research currently centers on Brachypodium dystachion, a grass that is closely related to switchgrass and miscanthus, two of the major biomass feedstock species.  This grass has three traits that make it ideal as a model for optimizing biomass crops:

  • well-developed molecular genetics system
  • genome sequence that is near completion
  • short life cycle making it ideal for rapid genetic analysis.

The two major aims of TIMBR biomass optimization research are to:

  • analyze traits involved in feedstock quality such as growth rate and biomass production including forward genetic screening of mutagenized populations, sample genetic variation in naturally occurring accessions from around the world, and identify homologous genes that are known to affect biomass traits in other species.
  • use existing biomass conversion technology to screen mutants and genetic variants identified for optimal feedstock characteristics, develop a high throughput screen for microbial on sample biomass, metabolically profile products from fermentation to identify cell wall component genetic lines that support optimal production, and physically analyze cell walls during fermentation to correlate biomass physical characteristics with optimal conversion.

Team Members

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Plant morphogenesis; microtubules; root physiology; cell wall structure, anisotropic expansion; high-resolution scanning electron microscopy

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Studying the molecular mechanisms that drive plant cell growth, focusing on a critical cell type required for optimal nutrient and water uptake, particularly during growth in marginal lands.

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Research interests span a range of disciplines, including population genetics, molecular evolution, evolutionary ecology, phylogeography, and evolutionary genomics. Focus is on the study of loci contributing to traits of evolutionary or ecological importance and the processes governing diversification within and between closely related plant species.

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Drought stress physiology of cool-season grasses; low temperature stress physiology.

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Biofuel agronomic production; sunflower, oilseed rape, soybean, corn, switchgrass

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Seeking a greater understanding of gene regulation and the mechanisms behind natural genetic variation that are potentially applicable to crop improvement, either through enlightened dissection of traits in crops or transgenic modification.

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Biofuel agronomic production; switchgrass, sunflower, oilseed rape, soybean, corn, dual landuse for crops and photo-electricity

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Understanding how auxin biosynthetic pathways interact with biosynthetic pathways for other important plant signaling molecules that regulate plant growth and development and to apply this knowledge to the development and optimization of cellulosic biofuel feedstocks such as Switchgrass

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Focused on the phytoremediation of toxic pollutants with the purpose of environmental clean up of contaminated soil, water and air.

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Biofuels agronomic production, invasive species and weed control.

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Focuses on cellular and metabolic engineering. Through the characterization and redirection of metabolism, cellular processes can be optimized for a variety of applications. 

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An expert on chloroplast physiology, membrane and lipid biology, protein trafficking and plastid gene expression. His interests are in plastid transformation experiments and the redistribution of biomass to seed oil.

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Mechanisms that control the uptake and homeostasis of iron and the use of molecular approaches to discover genes involved in production of paclitaxel