Professors Receive $4.6 Million to Study Impact of Climate Change on Potential Biofuel Source

Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin, working with scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), have received a $4.6 million grant to explore how switchgrass, a native prairie grass and promising source of biofuel, will fare under future climate change.

"We're combining our strengths to tackle a number of basic problems in plant biology and ecology, especially in the context of biofuels and future climate change," says Tom Juenger, associate professor of integrative biology. "Our project will explore the limits of plant productivity by integrating a number of perspectives. Our USDA collaborators will help us to translate our findings into real world tests of biofuels production."

Juenger, Christine Hawkes and Tim Keitt, faculty in the School of Biological Sciences, are the principal investigators of the project, which was awarded by the National Science Foundation through its Plant Genome Research Program.

Among other goals, the researchers expect to be able to make better forecasts about how different switchgrass varieties will perform under future climate environments, and to uncover many of the genetic mechanisms of switchgrass tolerance to drought.

"One thing to take into account when considering biofuel sources of energy," says Juenger, "is that our estimates for productivity are based largely on yields from really good agricultural lands. The truth, however, is that if biofuel crops are going to be viable they will need to be productive on marginal land, with few inputs, and under more stressful environmental conditions."

In order to examine switchgrass responses to drought, the researchers will plant both agronomic and native varieties under experimental drought conditions at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the Brackenridge Field Laboratory, the USDA facility in Temple, Texas, and 10 more USDA sites in Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and Nebraska.

"Many studies, to this point, have focused on which switchgrass cultivars are productive in which locations across the U.S.," says Juenger, "and yet the question we really need to be asking is which locations and cultivars will be productive in 20 or 40 years, based on predictions of climate change."

Hawkes, a community and ecosystem ecologist, will work with the USDA to set up and monitor specially designed "rainout" shelters that will enable her to subject switchgrass varieties to the range of future drought conditions predicted for this region. The effort will be geared toward linking the ecological and genetic responses of plants to drought and toward identifying particularly promising switchgrass varieties for future biofuel development.

Juenger, who studies plant genetics and genomics, will be doing foundational work developing genomic resources and tools for exploring physiological traits in switchgrass, including a switchgrass species native to Texas. Juenger hopes to identify the genetic mechanisms of drought tolerance and adaptation in the species.

Keitt, a landscape ecologist, will use the genomic, physiological and ecological data acquired from the field trials, lab studies and a variety of other sources to significantly improve predictions for how climate change will affect switchgrass production and limits in the plants' natural ranges in North America. His models should allow scientists to predict the future yields of different switchgrass varieties and to play out scenarios for how other crops and plant species would fare under climate change.

"The models we have right now," says Keitt, "are based almost entirely on environmental data. They're saying, basically, that if it's going to be this temperature and this much rainfall here by 2050, then these species are going to grow well and those others aren't. Those predictions are made, however, without understanding any of the biology. It'll be very interesting to see if the more biologically driven predictions that we create are different."

In addition to funding the primary research projects, the grant also allocates money for Hawkes, Juenger and Keitt to organize and run a research course in the college's Freshman Research Initiative. The course, which will focus on the biology of biofuels, will start in the spring 2011, and will be taught both on campus and at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory.

"Dealing with the challenge of climate change is an inter-generational one," says Juenger. "We need to be training the next generation of scientists, and this is an ideal context in which to do it. It's really integrative, bringing together modeling, ecology, physiology and genomics, and it's a way to get the students out in the field on a daily basis."