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Photo: Corngrass. Link to photo information
Corngrass, a relative of common corn that can sprout roots from its stem, may hold genes important to more efficient ethanol production. Click the image for more information about it.

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Corngrass: Youthful Plant May Quicken Biofuels Research

By Marcia Wood
November 3, 2008

Corngrass, a little-known variation of your typical towering cornstalk, might hold the key to fast, cheap, eco-friendly ways to squeeze more ethanol from tomorrow's biofuel crops.

Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists at the ARS-University of California-Berkeley Plant Gene Expression Center in Albany, Calif., are investigating corngrass traits that might be moved into other plants, to make them stand-out biofuel crops.

For example, corngrass has tender, youthful leaves that contain less lignin, a component of plant-cell walls, than does the tougher foliage of conventional corn plants.

That's a plus for corngrass, because the lignin, cellulose and hemicellulose in cell walls present stumbling blocks for efficiently producing what's known as cellulosic ethanol. These cell wall components aren't easily degraded into the fermentable sugars from which ethanol is made.

Plant molecular geneticists George Chuck and Sarah Hake at Albany, and co-investigators, reported in a 2007 issue of Nature Genetics that what they refer to as "the Corngrass gene" likely serves as a master control for seven or more other genes that confer traits such as lignin levels.

Now, with funding from ARS, UC Berkeley, and the U.S. Department of Energy they're taking a closer look at these genes.

Collaborator Christian Tobias, a plant molecular biologist with the ARS Western Regional Research Center in Albany, plans to shuttle the Corngrass gene into switchgrass, the prairie grass regarded as one of America's most promising bioenergy crops. Tobias wants to determine if the Corngrass gene can boost switchgrass' value as a biofuel source.

Read more about the research in the November/December 2008 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is a scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.