Published on 02/19/09

UGA scientist ready to make better biofuel plants

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

Charlie Brummer believes there is room for improvement – at least when it comes to plants.

“I'm a plant breeder, which means my job is to develop new plant varieties with improved traits,” said Brummer, a crop and soil sciences professor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Whether creating better crops to fuel the United States in the future, ones to help farmers make more money – or just one with a prettier bloom, plant breeding is basically a simple concept, he said. Man’s been doing it for 10,000 years.

“What we do, and what those early humans did, is to select among a population of plants for the ones that have the traits we want - large seed size, green leaves, big red flowers, etc.,” he said. “We look for good plants, cross them together and get even better plants.”

Brummer started his career as an undergraduate potato breeder at Penn State in 1985. As the director of the UGA Institute of Plant Breeding, Genetics and Genomics, he now breeds alfalfa, white and red clover, tall fescue, orchard grass and perennial ryegrass.

He is also part of some major grants award to UGA to develop bioenergy crops such as switch grass.

Biofuel is a political topic that’s tough to predict, he said. When or whether the alternative energy industry strengthens in the U.S. depends on what kinds of programs are put in place now and in the future.

“We can manipulate plants in various ways just through breeding to make better feedstock for whatever biofuel platform ultimately develops,” he said.

From his perspective as a breeder, it’s hard to select for one trait one year and another trait the next. The process takes time and needs consistent goals or targets to work.

“I don't think breeding will be the deciding factor, though, in whether a biofuel industry develops or not,” he said. “Breeding can certainly tailor better biofuels to that industry, but some combination of government and private enterprise nurturing the industry as it gets going has to occur for us so that growing biofuels in the first place is economically feasible. Once that happens, we (the breeders) can work our magic and further increase the productivity and profitability of the sector.”

Plant breeding has undergone huge changes since the early part of the 20th century when it was formalized as a discipline, he said. Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin crossed plants to produce new varieties. But the later application of genetic principles to the plant breeding process opened up the discipline’s possibilities and helped the breeder predict what could be.

“More recently, the application of biotechnolgy and genomics has given plant breeders a much more precise understanding of the crops or plants they work with and presents opportunities to manipulate traits more efficiently and effectively,” he said. “The use of these tools is rapidly expanding, and together with more sophisticated statistical tools, really opens up many possibilities to develop superior plant varieties in the future.”

One thing hasn’t changed, though. A good plant breeder still has to be a kind of Jack-of-all-trades, so to speak, he said. From pathology, entomology and agronomy to biology and statistics, he has many tools to use in the toolbox. “We apply all this different technology to the actual plants that people grow.”

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