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New Miscanthus strain could optimise biomass production

Researchers from the University of Illinois in the US, and the Aarhus University in Denmark are looking to examine a new cold-tolerant strand of the miscanthus plant to make it more efficient for biomass production.

The study details how Miscanthus x giganteus, which is the standard strain for current production, can be bred with Miscanthus sacchariflorus which can be found in Siberia. The latter’s cold tolerance could lead to the plant being grown in colder climates, broadening its growing season.

To gain further insight into the study, Bioenergy Insight spoke with Charles Pignon, the study’s leader, enquiring into the viability of the new strain of miscanthus in comparison to ones used today.

“We expect that sugarcane/miscanthus hybrids (called miscane) with improved cold tolerance could do much better in temperate climates than standard sugarcane varieties. Sugarcane is highly cold-sensitive, and at the 50°F we exposed Miscanthus to in our experiment, photosynthesis in sugarcane is almost entirely suppressed,” Pignon told Bioenergy Insight.

“The good news is, we already know that cold-tolerance from miscanthus can be preserved in miscane (see link below for work on miscane by Profs. Sacks & Glowacka). If we now made miscanes using the superior, cold-tolerant Miscanthus discovered in our new study, we could potentially achieve even more cold-tolerant miscanes.

“To get a sense of how much of a benefit cold-tolerance can bring, look no further than the Midwest - the 'Illinois' clone of Miscanthus x giganteus produces 59% more biomass than corn here, because its greater cold tolerance enables it to produce healthy leaves earlier in the Spring, and maintain them later in the Fall, thereby significantly lengthening its growing season.”

Regarding the timescale in which the new strain could see cultivation, Bioenergy Insight spoke with University of Illinois crop sciences professor Erik Sacks, who described estimating the timescale of development as ‘difficult’.

“For standard breeding of sugarcane, a 9-12+ year cycle from cross, through testing, to cultivar release is common.  Much will depend on how the low-temperature photosynthesis traits from Miscanthus are inherited and expressed in a sugarcane genetic background,” Sacks told Bioenergy Insight.

You can read Sacks and Glowacka’s work on miscane here, and access Pignon’s study on the new strain here.