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Commercialization of shrub willow as bioenergy crop
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The commercialization of shrub willow as a bioenergy crop could be years closer, thanks to a $1.37 million grant that will allow Cornell researchers to take advantage of the newly mapped shrub willow genome to study hybrid vigor and yield. Source: R&D Mag (US)
Larry Smart, associate professor of horticulture, has partnered with Christopher Town, professor at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) to study the genetics of superior growth in hybrids of shrub willow, a fast-growing, perennial cool-climate woody plant.
"Determining the precise genetic mechanisms that produce hybrid vigor has been a scientific challenge for a century," said Smart. Unlocking those mechanisms and then developing simple techniques for finding the genetic fingerprint for hybrid vigor in parent species could cut the time it takes to identify promising progeny, Smart said.
And time is money; for farmers to adopt a new crop like shrub willow -- and for companies to accept the end product – they need assurance of long-term profitability before taking on the associated higher risk.
"We think the results of this research will take years off the cycle time needed to find the best growing shrub willow hybrids and with consistent increases in yield each cycle, we will rapidly advance commercialization of this emerging bioenergy crop," Smart said.
Specifically, the researchers will examine gene expression patterns in shrub willow species hybrids. The grant is part of a $41 million investment by the US Department of Energy (DOE) and the US Department of Agriculture in research to improve efficiency and innovation in biofuel production and feedstocks.
The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets estimates there are more than 1 million acres of poorly drained and otherwise underutilized land in New York alone. Using this land to grow shrub willow could create a new regional cash crop. And unlike corn or sugarcane, shrub willow does not need the more fertile soil used for the production of fruit, vegetables or livestock feed.
"Willow represents an important bioenergy crop for the northeastern part of the US, and the hybrids that are being developed by Cornell have the potential to provide higher yields of more suitable biomass and with more efficient use of resources such as water," Town said.
"We're at a key juncture in New York, where we're deciding whether or not to extract more fossil fuels locally. At the same time, we need to explore renewable energy options that will stimulate the local economy and not contribute to global climate change," Smart said.