Miscanthus could be an alternative biofuel crop.
Miscanthus could be an alternative biofuel crop.

Research into alternative crops that can be used for biofuel, particularly cellulosic bioenergy, is increasing now that the U.S. government has mandated an increase in domestic ethanol production.  

A recent University of Illinois study is using genetic markers to identify early developmental traits in Miscanthus that correlate with future yield.

“This study begins to establish links between reproducible genetic markers and a number of key agronomic traits in Miscanthus sinesis,” the researchers said.

On a practical level, the researchers saw strong positive correlations between biomass yield and plant basal circumference, height, and tiller (stem) number, suggesting that plants that are able to grow taller and produce more tillers in the first few years may achieve higher yields in the long term. Furthermore, there were negative correlations between flowering time and yield, with early flowering individuals producing less biomass. Breeders could make use of that information to improve early selection of plants with enhanced biomass productivity to accelerate the breeding program.

“The advantage to marker-assisted breeding is that you can grow seedlings, collect DNA, and probe for a large suite of DNA markers that are linked to genes that confer the characteristics you want. That can save a lot of time, because you can identify potential phenotypes without having to wait 3-4 years to get a mature plant,” explained University of Illinois geneticist Jack Juvik. “The value of this kind of system in Miscanthus is substantial in terms of breeding progress.”

Miscanthus is also gaining popularity in Ohio. Nearly 4,000 acres of giant miscanthus has been planted in Ashtabula County since 2011, said David Marrison, an Ohio State University Extension educator. Growers and others who want to learn more about Miscanthus can attend a “Miscanthus Harvest in Northeast Ohio” workshop and bus trip March 11 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Registration is $10 and includes program materials, lunch and refreshments. Deadline to register is March 4. To register, go to go.osu.edu/miscanthus, or call David Marrison at 440-576-9008, ext. 106, or marrison.2@osu.edu.

A Prickly Crop

Another crop being researched in more arid areas of the country is the prickly pear cactus. Researchers at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension office started a research project two years ago to determine the usability of the crop for biofuel, biomass, feed stock and human consumption.

The researchers are testing three types of cacti: Opuntia Streptacantha, Opuntia Ficus Indica and Nopalea Cochillefera.

The study is anticipated to be a five-year study and the project is showing promising results.

“Similar tests have bene run in other countries, John Cushman explained. “But the results were spotty. We are running this experimentation under strict supervision and taking detailed accounts to have reliable information. This is the first definitive study of this kind in the country. We are really excited and encouraged by the results so far.”