USDA scientists and their colleagues at the Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute say they have completed sequencing the genome of a kind of wild grass that will enable researchers to shed light on the genetics behind hardier varieties of wheat and improved varieties of biofuel crops. The grass, Brachypodium distachyon, can be used by plant scientists the way other researchers use lab mice to study human disease, as a model organism that is similar to but easier to grow and study than important agricultural crops, including wheat and barley.
A major stumbling block in using switchgrass or any perennial grass as a biofuel crop is the difficulty in breaking down its cell walls, an essential step in producing ethanol from cellulosic biomass. Brachypodium may hold the key to finding ways to produce plant cell walls that are easy to break down.
Molly Jahn, USDA Acting Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics, says this critical research will help scientists develop switchgrass varieties that are more suitable for bioenergy production by identifying the genetic basis for traits such as disease resistance, drought tolerance and the composition of cells.