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ARS Home » Midwest Area » Madison, Wisconsin » U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center » Dairy Forage Research » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #395001

Research Project: Improving Forage Genetics and Management in Integrated Dairy Systems for Enhanced Productivity, Efficiency and Resilience, and Decreased Environmental Impact

Location: Dairy Forage Research

Title: Biomass quality responses to selection for increased biomass yield in perennial energy grasses

item CASLER, MICHAEL - Retired ARS Employee
item Mitchell, Robert - Rob
item Adler, Paul

Submitted to: BioEnergy Research
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 8/26/2022
Publication Date: 9/6/2022
Citation: Casler, M.D., Mitchell, R., Adler, P.R. 2022. Biomass quality responses to selection for increased biomass yield in perennial energy grasses. BioEnergy Research. 15:3.

Interpretive Summary: Switchgrass and big bluestem are potentially valuable crops for sustainable production of bioenergy from biomass conversion. Breeding, genetics, and genomics of energy grasses are the basis for developing improved varieties for perennial biomass production systems. Previous research has shown that breeders have increased biomass yield of these two species for the northern USA by 10 to 50% during the past 25 years of research. Historically, there are concerns that high yielding grasses tend to have reduced biomass quality and vice versa. As such, this study evaluated control varieties compared to improved varieties of these two grasses for 6 years at 13 locations for 42 biomass quality traits. Overall, there were no negative responses to selection and breeding: improved varieties did not have any significant or consistent declines in biomass quality. These results have strong implications for other breeders and geneticists working on perennial energy grasses, indicating that biomass yield can be improved, increasing profitability and sustainability, without sacrificing quality or conversion efficiency.

Technical Abstract: Perennial grasses are candidates for biomass cropping systems that are focused on providing a wide range of ecosystem services in addition to sustainable bioenergy production. Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii Vitman) are two of the dominant grasses of the tallgrass prairie and both are candidates for development of multifunctional diverse production systems. Breeding programs for both species are aimed at increasing biomass yield as a mechanism of improving economic sustainability without increasing production costs. The objective of this study was to determine if long-term selection for increased biomass yield in these two species has had any adverse impacts on biomass quality, or the ability to convert biomass into bioenergy. Check cultivars and improved breeding populations of both species were evaluated for a wide range of biomass quality traits at 13 locations in the North Central and Northeastern USA, and a subset of these populations were also subjected to more intensive and detailed fermentation analyses. In general, lignin and ferulates either remained constant or decreased following selection for increased biomass yield in the various genetic pedigrees. These changes resulted in some increases in predicted ethanol production and in vitro digestibility. The prediction of increased digestibility was confirmed by higher glucose release by pretreatment and deconstruction of an advanced lowland population. However, bioreactor fermentations with two different biofuel-producing microbes showed no differences in ethanol production. Overall, these studies indicated that the improved switchgrass and big bluestem populations had greater biomass yields without significantly reducing biomass quality or conversion efficiency into ethanol, suggesting that selection can achieve increases in biomass productivity while maintaining consistent biomass quality.