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Award supports biofuel sustainability research through specialized equipment access

Washington State University scientists are working to more precisely understand how plants use nutrients from soil at the level of single cells, with the goal of helping crop plants used for biofuels be more sustainable.

A team of WSU researchers was awarded one of 20 exploratory grants to access state-of-the-art equipment at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL) in Richland, Washington. The lab is affiliated with the U.S. Department of Energy and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

“We’ll be able to look at single cells during specific developmental stages,” said Karen Sanguinet, an associate professor in WSU’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. “This is the next level of understanding how plant roots interact with the soil.”

The long-term goal is to breed grass crops that can be used for biofuels and flourish on land that isn’t already growing food crops.

“We can’t replace arable land currently used for food crops,” Sanguinet said. “For biofuels to be sustainable, we must come up with creative solutions for marginal areas that don’t work for growing food. We want plants used for biofuels to harness the underground energy already there.”

Sanguinet and her colleagues, Laura Bartley from WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry and Xianran Li from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, want to improve root traits for better nutrient use efficiency in plants like sorghum and switchgrass, the primary crops being studied for biofuel production. But before they work up to those complex plants, they’re starting with genetically simpler ones.

“We want to find out what genes, and combinations of genes, allow the plants to most efficiently use soil nutrients,” Sanguinet said. “Then we can leverage that science to work with plants like switchgrass, which has big and bulky complex genomes.”

At EMSL, the scientists will use laser-scanning microscopy to focus on a set of cells, examining the genes and proteins they express in different cell types. They will also use specialized imaging platforms to understand how cells develop into different types, hopefully learning the specific genes that will allow for breeding of plants that make the most efficient cell types for nutrient use.

“Having access to this equipment is hugely beneficial,” Sanguinet said. “We’re hoping this will lay the groundwork for important breakthroughs in growing sustainable biofuels.”

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