Carnegie-led initiative receives major DOE biofuels research grant

Palo Alto, CA— Carnegie plant biologists Sue Rhee and David Ehrhardt will lead one of 25 teams awarded a total of $64 million this week by the U.S. Department of Energy to pursue genomic research of potential biofuel crops.

“This research will help us improve crops grown for bioenergy and bioproducts while at the same time deepening our knowledge of complex and interacting biological processes within specific environmental systems,” said the agency’s Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar. 

Rhee and Ehrhardt, together with Carnegie geochemist George Cody, UC Berkeley’s Markita del Carpio Landry, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Jenny Mortimer, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Ed Wolfrum, aim to reveal the metabolic networks of the cereal plant sorghum, which is also a biofuel crop, and the wheat relative Brachypodium, which is a model organism for grasses, including those that are used for biofuels.

Gaining a big-picture view of plant metabolism will allow scientists to improve productivity, which could result in bioenergy breakthroughs.

“Plant research has revealed individual metabolic pathways, but a complete cellular view of plant metabolism has never been attempted,” explained Rhee, who is the project’s principle investigator. “This study will be the first of its kind, revealing the full suite of a plant’s metabolic enzymes and their relationships to each other inside a living cell.”

Their initiative will take an interdisciplinary approach, incorporating cell biology, genomics, metabolic modeling, artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, geochemistry, nanotechnology, and analytical chemistry. Working together, the team will use cutting-edge, high-throughput laboratory experiments and advanced computation techniques to develop a system for mapping the molecules and cellular locations involved in metabolism in these two grain plants.  

“This information will allow us to create models to test how sorghum and Brachypodium will perform under different conditions, such as those resulting from climate change, and hopefully show us how we can engineer them to be more resource-savvy,” Rhee added. “The proposal development was a fun team effort, with excellent contributions from Carnegie postdoctoral researchers Jiun Yen, Cheng Zhao, and Suryatapa Jha.”

The DOE funding includes 11 other plant research projects, all of which are designed to reveal connections between specific aspects of the plant genome and particular traits that could help improve crop yields. Of these, two projects are led by former Carnegie scientists José Dinneny, now at Stanford University, and Martin Jonikas, now at Princeton University, highlighting the outsized impact Carnegie scientists make in addressing global problems through innovative plant science. The award also included 13 projects designed to uncover the roles of microbes in shaping different ecosystems.