This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 24, 2012 - If, amid this summer’s sweltering heat and parching lack of rain, there was one ironic thought that might sum up the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center’s latest grant award, Dr. Tom Brutnell may have found it.
“Good timing,” quipped Brutnell, director of the center’s Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels.
That’s because the grant, in which Brutnell will be principal investigator, is centered on a topic most St. Louisans have recently found riveting: drought. The five-year research effort, a $12.1 million package from the Department of Energy, will explore the possibilities found in Setaria viridis, an unassuming strain of grass that could hold the genetic key to producing better bioenergy and a more abundant food supply, even in areas that are drying up due to arid locales, climate change or the shifting vagaries of everyday weather.
Brutnell said that the grass is a relative of foxtail millet, a drought-tolerant crop grown in Africa and drier parts of China. Importantly, it’s also a cousin to corn and certain important biofuel grasses like switchgrass and sugarcane.
“These grasses being grown for bioenergy are closely related but they are hard to work with,” he said. “Sugarcane is physically a large plant. It takes a lot of work to do genetics on sugarcane but this model is small in size; it has a sequenced genome. We can put genes in it.”
It’s also quicker growing and faster to flower taking only weeks to complete a lifecycle – instead of months like corn. That quality allows scientists to unlock its secrets more easily.
Because of this, researchers may be able to use the grass to build a genetic template, which might help make its more well-known kin grow with less water. That can have big implications, not only for biofuels like ethanol, but also for the kinds of fuel that humans run off of as well.
Hitting the pocketbook
“For the food crops, you want them to convert CO2 into starch that goes into the grain,” Brutnell said. “To do that, they basically need water and carbon dioxide. We’ve got plenty of carbon dioxide floating around, so water is what’s really limiting. Understanding how those plants deal with water shortages and manipulating it so they can handle it better will have applications in both food and bioenergy.”
That could eventually mean positive changes for the average American pocketbook.
“Hopefully, what the general public will see are plants that yield more under drought conditions,” Brutnell said. “This is probably one of our worst droughts in 25 years. We’re going to see that translate into lower yields of corn and immediately into higher prices. Meat prices are going to go up. Ethanol prices are going to go up. It’s going to have a pretty immediate impact.”
Still, elsewhere on the planet, the effect could be even more critical. In the United States, the cost of selling food dwarfs the cost of producing it.
“When we buy Corn Flakes most of the price goes to marketing the Corn Flakes, not to the corn,” he said, “but in developing countries, that’s not the case; and if the price of corn goes up as it has by close to $2 a bushel because of the drought, that’s a huge increase in the price. That’s going to have a severe consequence for people making less than a dollar a day.”
Brutnell’s group, which will work to create mutations in the plant so they can be studied, is only one of four teams at Danforth that will benefit from the DOE’s largesse. Others will work on legal compliance issues, root function and certain regulators involved in drought-resistant genes. Five teams in other institutions from Washington State to Washington, D.C., will also be a part of the project.
Still, Danforth is playing the lead role, something Brutnell thinks speaks to the overarching vision of James Carrington, the southern California native who took over the reins at the center last year.
“He’s come in and is really trying to restructure around what we call systems biology, taking this whole view of the plant, looking at the DNA, the RNA, the proteins and having a systems-level view,” Brutnell said. “By knowing about all these different components, it’s going to help us better engineer and manipulate the plant.
Regardless of what the research eventually yields, Brutnell believes the grant has shown one thing already.
“This is the way the funding agencies want to see things happening. Industry is very interested in this sort of an approach,” he said. “At Danforth, we’re really leading the way now in developing some of these new tools that approach this question.”