Optimising the development of the energy grass Miscanthus through manipulation of flowering time

Lead Research Organisation: Aberystwyth University
Department Name: IBERS

Abstract

To combat climate change, it is necessary to use less energy and replace more of the energy we use with renewable sources. Furthermore, there is an over dependence on imported fossil fuels, putting future fuel security at risk. A number of renewable energy sources exist (for example, biomass, wind, solar, marine) and it is widely predicted that in the future no one form will dominate, in other words there will be a mixed energy economy. Biomass from energy crops are an important part of the renewable energy mix because in addition to being able to provide electricity and heat through combustion, biomass can be used to make petroleum replacements such as liquid transport fuels and platform chemicals. Miscanthus is a perennial grass and an ideal energy crop because it combines the fast growth rate of a tropical grass, such as sugarcane, with a tolerance to grow at UK temperatures. Furthermore it is a very 'eco-friendly' crop since it requires herbicide treatment only during initial establishment, produces a high yield of biomass annually with 'compound interest' on previous vegetative growth, and highly effective nutrient recycling at the end of the year reduces cultivation and fertiliser inputs. However as Miscanthus is a new crop, previous basic research has been extremely limited so that little is known about the regulation of growth and development. This proposal seeks to start addressing this deficit by investigating the molecular basis of flowering. To help in this we will exploit technologies developed for, and knowledge of flowering in, model organisms such as Arabidopsis thaliana, rice and maize. Flowering has been chosen because it is the characteristic identified as most likely, when optimised, to maximise yield quickly in Miscanthus. For example it is highly desirable for plants to flower as late as possible to increase the length of the growing season and therefore photosynthesise for longer to produce more biomass. However flowering is also desirable to trigger senescence which is a critical process by which nitrogen and other resources are mobilised to the rhizome, the part of the plant below ground. This can be very important because some plant constituents, principally potassium and chloride are corrosive or form corrosive compounds when combusted and cause damage to energy generation equipment. The commercially grown variety of Miscanthus (Miscanthus x giganteus), is a naturally occurring hybrid between two species, Miscanthus sacchariflorus and Miscanthus sinensis. However flowering appears to be controlled differently in the parent species so that Miscanthus sacchariflorus flowers when the daylength is less than 12 hours but Miscanthus sinensis flowers when sufficient warm days have been experienced. The hybrid only very rarely flowers under UK conditions and is sterile. Therefore in this project we aim to identify the genes most likely to be involved in flowering time in the two parents of Miscanthus x giganteus. Research on model organisms has identified over 40 genes implicated in flowering time and the equivalent genes in Miscanthus will be identified and tested for an equivalent role. This will enable the development of DNA-based molecular markers for flowering which can be used in the UK Miscanthus breeding programme. Use of molecular markers will help with the optimisation and prediction of flowering time in young plants rather than having to wait three years for plants to gain maturity. It will also help in the selection of parent plants for new crosses. The information gained from this project will help to increase biomass yields in Miscanthus more quickly. This will therefore mean that more carbon will be fixed in a smaller area of land, and in addition improve farm economics, decrease pressure on other forms of land use, increase UK fuel security and most importantly reduce global carbon dioxide emissions.

Technical Summary

This project aims to deliver information on the coordinate control of growth and development in perennial grasses through the association of flowering time and senescence QTL, with flowering time genes in the C4 energy grass Miscanthus. It is proposed to investigate the molecular basis of flowering in this species by identifying homologues of flowering time genes already identified in the model plants Arabidopsis, rice and maize. There are over 40 flowering time associated genes mapped in rice and approximately half of these have also been mapped in maize. We therefore propose to exploit the dense SSR genetic maps of maize to build genetic maps of Miscanthus regions, focused around these candidate genes, supplementing the maize markers with a smaller number of sugarcane SSRs. Replicate mature plants of two mapping families used to genetically map the candidate flowering time regions will be phenotyped for heading date. This will therefore test the hypotheses that (1) Arabidopsis, rice and maize can be used as genetic models for the control of flowering time in Miscanthus, and (2) Miscanthus cDNAs homologous to rice and Arabidopsis flowering genes can be mapped to Miscanthus flowering time QTL. Mapping homologues of flowering time genes in Miscanthus will also provide comparative genetic information on the extent of synteny that exists between Miscanthus and other grasses. To further test candidate genes from model organisms which co-map to flowering time QTL in Miscanthus, shifts in allele frequency of the Miscanthus orthologous within synthetic populations selected for early and late flowering time will be monitored using SNPs. In other words to test if differences in flowering response exhibited by different Miscanthus species and genotypes are a consequence of allelic variation in orthologues of Arabidopsis and other model species flowering time control genes. Joint with BB/E014682/1

Publications

10 25 50

publication icon
Jensen E (2017) Towards combustion quality improvement: the role of flowering and senescence. in Global change biology. Bioenergy

Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
BB/E014933/1 24/09/2007 23/04/2008 £637,359
BB/E014933/2 Transfer BB/E014933/1 01/04/2008 30/03/2012 £584,901
 
Description Significant advance in our understanding of flowering time control in Miscanthus, including the identification of species specific differences and the modelling of flowering time to geographic origin. This information is now being used by plant breeders to improve the efficiency of collection, making new hybrids and also for phenotyping plants in field trials across Europe (including in the Renewable Materials LINK project GIANT and a new Framework 7 project, OPTIMISC).

Generation of the first high density genetic map of Miscanthus in collaboration with Ceres Inc. using the flowering time mapping population. Additional markers have also been identified for association mapping in 142 replicated field grown Miscanthus plants which were phenotyped over 5 years in this project.

Comparative genomics. Demonstration that M. sacchariflorus is a quantitative short-day plant like Sorghum, and at least one QTL for flowering in M. sinensis aligns through synteny to the same region in Sorghum.
Exploitation Route This information is being used by plant breeders including at IBERS as part of the GIANT LINK Miscanthus breeding programme to make wide crosses and synchronise crosses between different species. In November 2018, IBERS, Aberystwyth University has submitted for Plant Variety Protection of our first four Miscanthus varieties (Artemis, Atropos, Astraea and Aphrodite), the fundamental knowledge for making such wide crosses was aided by this project.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Energy,Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Transport

 
Description This information is being used by plant breeders including at IBERS as part of the GIANT LINK and subsequently MUST Miscanthus breeding programme to make wide crosses and synchronise crosses between different species in the field and under glass. In 2018, Aberystwyth University has submitted for Plant Variety Protection of our first four Miscanthus varieties (Artemis, Atropos, Astraea and Aphrodite), the fundamental knowledge for making such wide crosses was aided by this project. In 2019, a further four Miscanthus varieties have been submitted for Plant Variety Protection.
First Year Of Impact 2012
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Energy,Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Transport
Impact Types Societal,Economic

 
Description Fair and equitable use of natural resources through development of Miscanthus as an industrial crop
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Implementation circular/rapid advice/letter to e.g. Ministry of Health
Impact Through our research and implementation of an international conservation policy, the United Nation's Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD), we have achieved an impact toward the implementation of public policy at the global-scale for the conservation of genetic resources. The CBD entered into force on 29 December 1993 following the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Rio "Earth Summit"). The Convention was inspired by the world community's growing commitment to sustainable development and represented a dramatic step toward the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources. New crop breeding programmes are dependent on the collection and characterisation of diverse genetic resources. Importantly since the domestication of the staple crops, legally binding contracts including the CBD have been put in place to ensure that where genetic resources are collected from one country and commercially exploited elsewhere, the benefits of the exploitation are shared with the donor country. IBERS researchers pioneered the making of new Miscanthus collections and the negotiation of the necessary agreements in the absence of clear national legislation for the implementation of the access and benefit sharing arrangements under the CBD and ahead of the implementation of the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing in 2011. IBERS scientists worked closely with Defra and partners in Asia to implement the CBD and access and benefit sharing Protocols through organising joint workshops, collaborative research and legal negotiations. For example an international Workshop on Green Chemistry and Biomass Energy which was jointly funded by the National Science Council of Taiwan and the BBSRC, was held at the National Cheng Kung University on 3 November. Aberystwyth University and National Cheng Kung University formally signed a memorandum of understanding at the workshop, the signing of which was presided over by the vice chancellor of the Cheng Kung University and the CEO of BBSRC. In May 2012, Taiwan was the first Asian country to sign a full access and benefit sharing agreement under the CBD framework with the UK, and this was followed by successful negotiations with South Korea with an agreement to comply with CBD in November 2011, negotiations for access and benefits sharing up to July 2013 and an official signing of access and benefits sharing in October 2013. On both occasions the UK was represented by BEAA in the negotiation. This has created one of the first examples for implementing Nagoya protocols in the UK and our partnering countries. Not only have IBERS scientists implemented two international agreements but their experience and knowledge of setting up bi- lateral access and benefit sharing agreements under the CBD framework is now also being used as a proven example for others to follow, helping to support government's approach to legislation in this area. This includes the UK government's approach to the proposed "Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization (Nagoya Protocol): Union implementation and ratification", an EU-wide legislation to be submitted to the European Parliament which was voted on in committee on 4 July 2013. The main beneficiaries of this policy impact are therefore the UK government's agriculture policy legislation body (Defra), donor countries in Asia, commerce (only compliant germplasm can be commercially exploited in signatory countries) and the global society on the conservation of natural resources.
 
Description AgriTech; Miscanthus Upscaling Technology (MUST)
Amount £901,884 (GBP)
Funding ID BB/N016149/1 
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2016 
End 01/2019
 
Description Miscanthus UpScaling Technology (MUST)
Amount £898,000 (GBP)
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2016 
End 12/2018
 
Description Optimising Miscanthus Biomass production (OPTIMISC)
Amount £307,338 (GBP)
Funding ID 289159 
Organisation European Commission 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 10/2011 
End 03/2016
 
Title Miscanthus endophytic bacteria collection 
Description Collection of bacterial strains isolated from Miscanthus tissues 
Type Of Material Biological samples 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Published 2017. In use in on-going research. 
URL http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcbb.12364/pdf
 
Title Photoperiod and temperature controlled glasshouses equipped for induction of flowering used in breeding 
Description The MUST project continues the development of our Photoperiod and temperature controlled glasshouses equipped for induction of flowering used in breeding, transitioning from SON-T lamps to LED lighting systems. 
Type Of Material Physiological assessment or outcome measure 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Reduction in the costs of Miscanthus breeding and seed production in the UK 
 
Title Physis 
Description The Physis database has its roots in the IBERS database MSCAN. Physis is being developed by Michael Squance, a former IBERS PhD Student. Physis is designed to collect and collate standardized multi-location field trial data: plant performance (traits and yield), and environment (climate and soils). 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact The Physis system which began in Jan 2018, now includes mobile app and blue tooth technologies for efficient infield data collection. This is a game changer for a breeding research programme which requires long term, standardised data to improve models to project the regional production potential of seed based hybrids. 
URL http://physisdata.com/
 
Description BBC Wales Radio Science Cafe Programme 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Recorded discussion in a glasshouse growing Miscanthus

Increased awareness and programme was mentioned at subsequent interactions
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2009
URL http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/radiowales/sites/sciencecafe/updates/20110809.shtml
 
Description Cereals event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Engagement with farmers and growers on the potential use of Miscanthus on farms in the UK and the delivery pipeline for seed based varieties, including on the potential environmental benefits on marginal low carbon soils. This including raising awareness of the availability of seed based Miscanthus hybrids and their significant advantage over rhizome based M. x gianteus in terms of cost of establishment, scaleability and disease susceptability.

More farmers aware of Miscanthus as an option and the improvements that are in the pipeline
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012,2013,2014,2015
 
Description Renewble Transport Fuel Obligation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Participation in Science Media Centre Press Release on "biofuels: are we asking the right questions?" to coincide with the UK Governments launch of the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation

After the press release there were follow up calls and interviews on the use of plants and in particular grasses for energy including transport.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2008
URL http://www.sciencemediacentre.org/biofuels-are-we-asking-the-right-questions/
 
Description Royal Welsh Show 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Annual displays and activities based on agriculature and environmental green issues, including on the planting of energy crops, non-food use of plants, use of grass to make ethanol and plastics. Activities sparked discussion with farmers, and public of all ages

Visit to activities at Royal Welsh Show leads to subsequent requests for information and visits to IBERS in Aberystwyth.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2007,2008,2009,2010,2011,2012,2013,2014
 
Description Science Cafe talk and discussion on biofuels good or bad 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk sparked many questions and a long discussion

No immediate but subsequent reference to the engagement by some of those attending
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2010
URL http://www.ibers.aber.ac.uk/mailing_list/view_newsletter.asp?ID=42
 
Description Science Cafe talk and discussion on food vs fuel 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk sparked many questions and a long discussion afterwards.

The discussion resulted in greater understanding of the broader and deeper implications by the audience and myself.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2009