University of Florida researchers will use $1.45 million in federal grants to develop trait-prediction models and accelerate the growth of loblolly pine trees to produce more bioenergy.
In his grant application, UF associate professor Matias Kirst, the principal investigator for the study, said Southern pines can be used as renewable biomass for bioenergy and renewable chemicals. However, for pines to meet their potential as a bioenergy crop, researchers must develop more productive cultivars that can be efficiently converted into liquid fuels, said Kirst, who teaches in the School of Forest Resources and Conservation, part of UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Traditional breeding typically takes 15-25 years to develop a new improved cultivar, Kirst said. This makes the industry less competitive compared to other forest species grown overseas.
"There is a lot of interest in the industry in breeding trees that grow faster, and with lower inputs, Kirst said, particularly among paper manufacturing businesses.
Researchers hope to reduce the breeding cycle to four to five years. To do that, scientists must use new breeding techniques that accelerate cultivar development suitable for bioenergy, said Patricio Muñoz, UF assistant professor of agronomy, and co-investigator in the studies. Using a process known as genome-wide selection, UF researchers plan to use analysis of DNA to create faster-growing trees, he said.
Kirst plans to develop models to predict which seeds will be most likely to grow quickly.
Kirst published another study in 2011 that he says serves as a precursor to this grant.
The UF grants, along with more than a dozen others totaling nearly $9 million, were announced Nov. 15 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).
Nationwide, the grants will support research into issues affecting plant breeding and production, leading to improvements in plants critical to the sustainability and competitiveness of American agriculture, according to the NIFA press release.