USDA Scientists Sequence Genome of Biofuel Model
February 10, 2010
Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists and their colleagues at the
Department of Energy (DOE) Joint Genome
Institute announced that they have completed sequencing the genome of a
kind of wild grass that will enable researchers to shed light on the genetics
behind hardier varieties of wheat and improved varieties of biofuel crops. The
research is published today in the journal Nature.
Energy security looms as one of the most important scientific
challenges of this century, said Molly Jahn, USDA Acting Under Secretary
for Research, Education and Economics.
This critical research will help scientists develop switchgrass varieties
that are more suitable for bioenergy production by identifying the genetic
basis for traits such as disease resistance, drought tolerance and the
composition of cells.
The grass, Brachypodium distachyon, can be used by plant scientists
the way other researchers use lab mice to study human diseaseas a model
organism that is similar to but easier to grow and study than important
agricultural crops, including wheat and barley. The research also supports the
USDA priority of developing new sources of bioenergy; the Brachypodium
genome is similar to that of the potential bioenergy crop switchgrass. But the
smaller genome ofBrachypodium makes it easier to find genes linked to
specific traits, such as stem size and disease resistance.
Brachypodium (pronounced bracky-POE-dee-umm) also is easier to grow
than many grasses, takes up less laboratory space, and offers easy
transformation, which means scientists can insert foreign DNA into it to study
gene function and targeted approaches for crop improvement in the transformed
Vogel, a lead author and molecular biologist with the
Agricultural Research Service (ARS),
USDAs chief intramural scientific research agency. Vogel works at the
Genomics and Gene Discovery Research Unit in Albany, Calif. ARS geneticist
Garvin at the agencys
Science Research Unit in St. Paul, Minn., is also a lead author on the
A major stumbling block in using switchgrass or any perennial grass as a
biofuel crop is the difficulty in breaking down its cell walls, an essential
step in producing ethanol from cellulosic biomass. Brachypodium may hold
the key to finding ways to produce plant cell walls that are easy to break
down, Vogel said.
Vogel developed a method with a very high success rate for inserting genes
into Brachypodium. He, Garvin and their colleagues are spearheading
efforts to promote Brachypodiumas an experimental model. They shared
Brachypodiumseeds with more than 300 labs in 25 countries and gave
scientists worldwide free access to a draft sequence of the Brachypodium
genome long before the work was formally published. The sequencing project was
carried out through the DOE-JGI
Community Sequencing Program.