UNK professor Twigg aims to find better plants for biofuels with help from students

[USA] An important next step in U.S. biofuels development may be found in Paul Twigg’s University of Nebraska at Kearney greenhouse.

Or on his acreage north of Kearney.

Or maybe even in some UNK-grown algae.

The UNK professor of biology and some of his student researchers are looking deep inside switchgrass, algae and alfalfa on cellular and molecular levels to learn about traits that can make the plants better raw materials for biofuels.

“Sometimes you know what the genes are, but you don’t know what they do,” Twigg said, so studying cell function goes along with the physiological part of plant research.

Looking inside plants and learning how to enhance or control certain traits has been his focus during 23 years as a UNK molecular biologist. Discoveries often come when he and his students test plants under simulated field stress conditions such as drought and nitrogen deprivation.

The first and longest of his three biofuels projects is focused on finding better switchgrass for cellulosic ethanol production. Twigg collaborates with University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers, who do the breeding and provide the switchgrass cultivars, and also with U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers, particularly molecular biologist Gautam Sarath.

One goal is decreasing lignin, a natural polymer in plant cell walls, because yeast used in biofuels processing won’t ferment lignin. “So, it’s an energy loss in making biofuels,” Twigg said.

Another effort is to mix preferred traits from different types of switchgrass. He said upland switchgrass grown in Nebraska is not as big or productive as lowland switchgrass, but lowland species are subject to winter kill.

Twigg and his team also are studying green algae for its potential as raw material for biodiesel.

By stressing plant cells with nitrogen deprivation, the UNK researchers are learning that plants scavenge nitrogen from other places within the cell. That ultimately produces fat — triglycerides — that can be turned into diesel or jet fuel, Twigg said.

“You can grow it (algae) in a pond just about anywhere,” he said, which could include warm, dirty water at a power plant. “You can clean up some of the nasty aspects of it and mitigate the CO2 by feeding it to the algae.”

“With algae, they aren’t particularly well-studied,” Twigg added, so he and his students first need to develop tools to do the studies.

Twigg’s newest project involves drought and salinity tests on alfalfa, which is knowledge that will be helpful whether the crop is used as a feedstock or for ethanol. Twigg said there is a need for better breeds to withstand the effects of climate change, especially global warming.

It has been common for years to see switchgrass growing in pots in the University of Nebraska at Kearney greenhouse. The plants are part of biology professor Paul Twigg’s research on traits within different varieties that can be helpful in cellulosic ethanol production.
It has been common for years to see switchgrass growing in pots in the University of Nebraska at Kearney greenhouse. The plants are part of biology professor Paul Twigg’s research on traits within different varieties that can be helpful in cellulosic ethanol production.

His plan was to plant test plots this summer on his acreage north of Kearney. Twigg is working with an alfalfa breeding company to use five experimental varieties in the UNK research, but it took longer than expected to get the necessary permission from the company’s legal advisers.

“We’re hoping we’ll have time to do stuff here,” Twigg said in early July while standing in his driveway, “or we’ll do research in the (UNK) lab.”

To test drought tolerance, he and his grad students will water the plants well for one month and then keep them dry for two months. “Eventually, we will dig them up and look at the root structures and gene expression,” Twigg said.

In the UNK greenhouse lab, alfalfa seeds in petri dishes and plants in pots will be tested for salt tolerance by applying salinity levels ranging from “nothing to what should be pretty toxic,” he said.

Twigg explained the purpose of the research is to test how alfalfa that someday may be wanted as a dependable raw resource for fuel grows under harsh Nebraska conditions. He and his students also will look at the gene expression for such things as proteins that conduct the movement of water through the plant.

“From the molecular biology standpoint, whatever we learn can apply to other crops,” Twigg said, especially related plants such as other legumes like soybeans.

Much of Twigg’s plant studies are funded by grants — around $5.5 million in the past five years — from the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, National Science Foundation through the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, and the collaborative efforts with UNL and USDA.

He said USDA is particularly interested in switchgrass, EPSCoR grants are focused on the algae studies and money for the alfalfa study has come from a bequest earmarked for alfalfa research through the NU Foundation.

What is learned from UNK research may not be the next big alternative, home-grown fuel, but it may be an important “bridging technology” from petroleum to other energy sources, Twigg said.

The goal is to do something “significant to greater aims,” he added. “Everybody contributes small things to something bigger.”

 

Photo: University of Nebraska at Kearney biology professor Paul Twigg, left, checks an alfalfa field across the road from his acreage north of Kearney with some of his student researchers. From left are undergraduate Ashleigh Teten of Syracuse and grad students Karolina Kodin of Virginia and Casey Sutton of Maine. Kodin and Sutton will focus on alfalfa drought and salinity tolerance research.

View original article at: UNK professor Twigg aims to find better plants for biofuels with help from students

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