URI sponsors national workshop on developing bioenergy crops

Scientists explore advanced plant breeding, molecular biology techniques to develop alternative source for fuel, food crops

KINGSTON, RI – April 11, 2022 – Albert Kausch, director of the Plant Biotechnology Laboratory at the University of Rhode Island, is welcoming 11 scientists from across the nation and Argentina to a 10-day National Science Foundation and Department of Energy sponsored workshop.

The Cereal Crop Plant Transformation and Genome Editing Training Workshop, to be held at Kausch’s lab in West Kingston this week, will train participants to alter the DNA of sorghum to improve it as a bioenergy crop. Kausch and colleagues have received millions of dollars in federal grants to fund the research.

Sorghum is used worldwide as a feedstock and for ethanol production. Kausch says the Department of Energy (DOE) has been interested in developing sorghum as a bioenergy crop, using it as an alternative to corn. He points out that sorghum is drought tolerant and grows on marginal land, meaning it can be grown where other crops can’t grow.

“This is a highly expertise-intensive area of biotechnology. There is only a small group of leading researchers in this field,” he said. “There is a large and growing need for trained individuals in this and related areas in agricultural biotechnology and bioenergy. There are many new careers and jobs, which didn’t exist five years ago, with very few people trained in this area. Most of us in our field right now are increasingly concerned that as my generation tries to pass the torch, there’s no one to take it. I’ve been working to encourage, motivate, and teach younger scientists. Hence this workshop.”

The DOE has had a long-standing effort in developing bioenergy crops. “I’ve watched it mature significantly in the last 15 years, to where the technology is to a point that making liquid fuel such as gasoline, bunker oil (a term used for ship oil), and jet fuel are possible. And it is within the price range that we can anticipate will probably be competitive for quite a while now. We have reached that crossover tipping point where the technologies have improved, and the result can be competitive in the market.”

Bioenergy crops are defined as any plant material used to produce bioenergy. Bioenergy is “energy derived from recently living material such as wood, crops, or animal waste” and can contribute to reducing the overall consumption of fossil fuels. Growing bioenergy crops has the potential to generate economic activity and jobs on land that currently does not generate income or jobs.

Since his start in the 1980s, Kausch has focused on researching cereal crops, which he describes as crops that feed the world. “There are 7.2 billion people on the planet, and half of them live on rice. And half of those live on less than two cups of rice a day. So, part of our mission and this biology is to understand and improve the cereal crops.”

Kausch’s lab received an initial DOE award of $6 million about 15 years ago to fund research on bioenergy crops using advanced plant breeding and molecular biology approaches. He is currently funded as a co-principle investigator of a large DOE project on a $16 million award and as the primary investigator of a $2.1 million NSF award.

Kausch and his collaborators at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis will find out about another $18.5 million in potential funding in July.

Kausch credits part of his research success to a visit by U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., over a decade ago. “That visit really set in motion a whole program that resulted in all of our work in bioenergy and all of our collaborations since.”

Collaborating with the DOE, Kausch has researched the fundamental tools of understanding plant biology, focusing on photosynthesis, drought tolerance, water use efficiency and plants.

Kausch says that the technology needed to utilize sorghum as a viable biofuel will depend on the needs of the market. “I think if the need increases, then the technology will come into place more quickly,” he said.

He blames the slow pace of development on a scarcity of money. “People think that science is well funded, but that’s not the case. We really struggle and have to be very frugal. Hiring people, training people, having the people help out is really one of the biggest challenges right now.”

Challenges aside, Kausch remains excited and optimistic about the event. “The training, education, and research are critical. We’re going to be performing some experiments during the week that could set up some very important discoveries. It’s truly a great, great opportunity.”

The workshop runs through April 20 at Kausch’s lab in the West Kingston Research Facility, 530 Liberty Lane, West Kingston. He is inviting students to stop by the lab during the week, any day except Friday, between 3:30 and 5 p.m. to chat with the visiting plant scientists and talk about what they are working on.  

Hugh Markey wrote this press release.