Published on 09/27/07

Developing biofuel grass, scientists seek samples

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

Charlie Brummer wants to develop switch grass that can be used to make ethanol. If you've seen a patch growing in the wild, let him know. You may help the University of Georgia researcher and his colleagues fuel the United States in the future.

Switch grass is a hardy perennial grass commonly grown for cattle feed in the Midwest, said Brummer, a forage and biomass crop researcher with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. It also can be fermented to produce ethanol, a biofuel alternative to gasoline.

Corn and sugarcane can be converted to ethanol, too. These two crops have been studied for many years, and hundreds of domesticated varieties are available for human use. But the full potential of switch grass hasn't been captured, Brummer said. The few varieties cultivated in the United States are still considered wild.

"We're not necessarily looking for high-yielding switch grasses," he said. "Our approach is to develop high ethanol-yielding switch grass varieties that are more easily fermentable, or more economical and viable for ethanol production in the United States."

But right now, Brummer needs switch grass samples, or germ plasm, that he and other UGA scientists can study. He'd like to collect 100 different cultivars. He'll get about 35 of them from the Plant Genetic Resource Unit on the UGA Griffin campus. He hopes to find the rest growing wild around the Southeast this fall.

"We want switch grass that was unlikely planted," he said, "patches found around places that have never been tilled, like along wooded edges, in state parks or even cemeteries."

Hunters, hikers, campers or anyone who spends much time in nature are likely to see the switch grass he wants, he said. If they do, they can call (706) 542-8847 or e-mail

By fall, switch grass can be found in large clumps with flowers, stems and leaves as tall as 6 feet. It will have tiny, shiny teardrop seeds, too. The foliage turns a pale yellow.

Brummer will use standard breeding and field evaluation to study the different cultivars. Project partner Katrien Devos, a CAES plant geneticist, will study switch grass at the genetic level.

"There is very little known about the genetics of switch grass," Devos said. "The mode of inheritance is not known with certainty. We will build the genetic resources to bring switch grass up to the level with other crops so breeding can be done in a more efficient and targeted manner."

For example, she said, a line may be found that produces a good ethanol yield but not much biomass. With genetic mapping and markers, the gene, or genes, can be identified and placed into a plant that produces a lot of biomass, capturing the best of both plants.

"In the end, we'll breed switch grass varieties that the market, or the U.S. bioenergy industry, will demand in the future," Brummer said.

Devos and Brummer are part of a UGA team led by Alan Darvill, director of the UGA Complex Carbohydrate Research Center. The team was recently awarded a Department of Energy grant that will partner UGA with other universities, national laboratories and private companies to create bioenergy centers.

These centers will push research to find and develop plants with cell walls more easily converted into sugars and microorganisms that can efficiently break down those walls and convert the sugars into fuel.

UGA will receive $20 million over the next five years to conduct the work.

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.