Optimisation of Reed Canary Grass as a native European Energy Crop (ORNATE)

Lead Research Organisation: Aberystwyth University
Department Name: IBERS


There are major global strategic drivers for the development of bioenergy, including biofuels, to substitute for fossil carbon. These include a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, energy security, the long term trend of increasing oil price, opportunities for the creation of high tech "green jobs", and rural regeneration. The demand for bioenergy requires sustainable energy crop varieties with high and stable yields from low inputs, with harvestable biomass that can be converted with maximum efficiency. The ORNATE project proposes to establish the research, development and knowledge necessary to develop reed canary grass as a crop to provide a sustainable bioenergy feedstock in Europe. A number of other energy crops already receive worldwide attention. However, reed canary grass has an important role to play in the mix of energy crops in Europe because it exhibits a unique combination of characteristics: 1) it is a native species of Europe, able to grow on very marginal land, with carbon sink and biodiversity benefits; 2) it is inexpensive to establish and fits well into existing farming practice, providing flexibility and low risk to farmers; and 3) it is able to produce harvested biomass from late summer until early spring thereby producing biomass earlier in the year than other energy grasses and so reducing storage requirements for end users. Reed canary grass was taken by early European settlers to North America where it was grown as a forage crop and a small level of interest has been retained in its use on both sides of the Atlantic since then. The earliest report of reed canary grass seed being sold for use as forage was in 1836 in Germany, while the first agronomic trials began in 1837 in Sweden. Although limited in its cultivation to date (with 20,000 ha currently grown in Scandinavia), reed canary grass offers considerable potential as a bioenergy crop in Northern Europe including UK, Ireland and Scandinavia especially on marginal land as it can grow well in both dry and wet areas. For example reed canary grass grows extremely well in wet soils, withstanding flooding for long periods across a wide pH range whilst equally showing excellent drought tolerance. The ORNATE project partners (Aberystwyth University, UK; Teagasc, Ireland; the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden; and Senova Ltd., UK) will develop knowledge on how reed canary grass grows across multiple environments in Northern Europe including on marginal unproductive land not utilised for food production, of which many million ha exist across Europe. In particular the ORNATE partners will focus on those crop characteristics which will enable the rapid deployment of the crop: biomass yield, biomass chemical composition and seed yield. The partners will use this information to develop the genetic resources necessary to establish a reed canary grass breeding programme that is able to produce new varieties that are higher yielding, better able to grow on sub-optimal land, and better adapted to growth in UK, Ireland and Sweden. In addition, mineral constituents, including nitrogen, sulphur, and chlorine, have negative emissions or corrosion qualities when the crop is combusted and need to be minimised. These and other chemistries will therefore be measured to match reed canary grass varieties to a number of different end uses, for example by making pellets and combusting in a 35 kilowatt commercial boiler. The project will also examine the opportunities to maximise the benefits of reed canary grass through better understanding of emerging renewable energy markets and biomass value chains.

Technical Summary

The strategic demands for bioenergy require new energy crop varieties with stable high yields from low inputs, and harvestable biomass which can be converted with maximum efficiency. The ORNATE project proposes to establish the research, development and knowledge platforms necessary to develop reed canary grass as a crop to provide a sustainable bioenergy and industrial biotechnology feedstock in Europe. To achieve this we will use the four work packages in the ORNATE project to:
1) In WP1, establish a trial network including 10 varieties and ecotypes in Sweden, Ireland, UK and US. The plots in the trial network will be replicated and plants within them phenotyped over three growing seasons on a wide range of sites. This information will provide robust data for the modelling of reed canary grass performance.
2) In WP2, use of 50 existing segregating breeding populations and native accessions as a starting point for improvement. The crossing of reed canary grass genotypes and planting of progeny in Sweden, Ireland and UK for the evaluation of progeny and selection of genotypes for creation of new population based varieties for Europe.
3) In WP3, create a reed canary grass genetic map with a high density of molecular markers using a genotyping by sequencing approach. This will provide a means to understand the genome architecture and evolution in reed canary grass, in addition to creating a means to relate genes to biomass traits in the future.
4) In WP4 characterise commercialisation/ deployment traits and the defining of new value chains and markets for reed canary grass.
The combination of field experimentation and powerful phenotyping (WP1) and genotyping studies (WP3) will enable us to understand the biological mechanisms of yield quantity, stability and quality underpinning the construction of new varieties (WP2), creating a step change in the optimisation of reed canary grass as a European energy crop fulfilling new target markets (WP4).

Planned Impact

To ensure that the ORNATE project delivers impact we will:
1. Publish our research in the most appropriate (e.g. crop, plant and energy) peer-reviewed scientific journals and present it at scientific meetings.
2. Engage with researchers, plant breeders and farmers and end users through existing links and through trade publications and events.
3. Engage with schools, the wider public, and through environmental organisations in all participating partners' countries (e.g. in the UK with the National Trust, RSPB, National Botanic Garden and Countryside Commission for Wales (CCW)).
4. Train a cohort of researchers in plant breeding and bioenergy science.

For example under the headings of scientific, industry, and public engagement and training we will do the following:

Output Deliverables
- Web presence to include projects outline, reed canary grass factfile, references, links to/ from other relevant pages.

Scientific engagement
- Publish paper on genotype by environment effects on reed canary grass.
- Publication on the performance of reed canary grass populations.
- Publication on genetic map.
- Present findings at research conferences and particularly those which span the academic, industry and policy divide such as the World Biomass Conference and Expo.

Industry engagement
- Hold open days for farmers and other value chain participants at our institutes (at least one event in Sweden, Ireland and UK).
- Participate in agricultural shows and trade events (e.g. in the UK the Royal Welsh Show, the biggest agricultural show in Europe attracting 240,000 visitors and the Cereals event, a major farming technical event attracting 25,000 visitors).
- Engage the media at the start and during the project, including local and national press, radio and television (e.g. using contacts with BBC, we will invite the producers of the Countryfile programme, watched by over 14 million viewers weekly in the UK, to feature the project and highlight the anticipated environmental and economic benefits to stakeholders, especially those owning marginal lands).
- Publicise our research through bioenergy industry publications.
- Value chains report at end of project.

Public engagement
- Engage with local schools, and technical and agricultural colleges (e.g. in the UK during the National Science and Engineering week and via BBSRC schools regional champions).
- Hold open laboratory days.
- Participate in events such as the "Fascination of Plants Day", launched in 2012 under the umbrella of the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO).
- Participate in public forums such as science cafes.
- Engage the media as above.

- Organise training for staff on technical and transferable skills.
- Staff working on the project to be involved in engagement activities.
- Ensure that staff develop the multidisciplinary skills needed to conduct bioenergy research and play an active role in the future in the knowledge based bioeconomy.


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Donnison IS (2016) Diversification and use of bioenergy to maintain future grasslands. in Food and energy security

Description Reed canary grass has a number of features that means it can provide a low risk alternative to other bioenergy crops and especially when ecosystem services are a priority, for example on marginal or contaminated lands. Within the project we evaluated nine new genotypes at plot scale in the field and identified at least 4-5 new genotypes that performed well in both Sweden and the UK. Two of these genotypes in particular out-performed the current industry standard Bamse, especially at the UK location. In addition, we were able to evaluate, in Sweden and the UK, a diverse germplasm collection assembled from across Europe. This assessment was made from spaced plants grown in the field over multiple seasons and was used to identify high performing genotypes as parents for further variety development. We used 20 plants in each of 4 crossing blocks focused to create seed for four new populations for two different geographies/ maturity classes (early and late season) and two different end uses (combustion and anaerobic digestion), which represent potential new varieties for evaluation and represent a plant breeding pipeline for future improvement. We had excellent exchange of plant materials (seed and harvested biomass for analyses) and data between partners during the project. Only such a collaborative project across Europe could enable an evaluation of bioenergy crops in different environments with scientists on hand who understand the crop and are able to collect regular measurements between sites so that larger scale environmental interactions can be understood. The collaboration was also able to bring together Swedish expertise with reed canary grass as a crop including its agronomy with reed canary grass plant breeding in the UK, and for all partners to consider the development of new value chains.
WP1: A trial network of genetically diverse reed canary grass was established to help define ideotypes matched to differing environments and end uses. Reed canary grass plots were planted and established in Aberystwyth, UK and in Umea, Sweden. The project involved the establishment and maintenance of trials and the collection of samples for chemical analysis, following both summer (green) and winter (brown) harvests. We identified multiple reed canary grass accessions which significantly outperformed the European industry standard variety of Bamse. We have therefore been exploring with commercial partners opportunities to bulk up seed, trial more extensively and potentially commercialise some of the more interesting genotypes (see also WP4 below).
WP2: Plants were phenotyped and selected to form the basis of a breeding programme. We planted 1100 plants in Sweden and 1470 plants in the UK representing 64 accessions. From this, we identified 29 accessions which contained plants of interest in terms of them exhibiting desirable traits for plant breeding. A total of 14 accessions contained plants which exhibited very high biomass scores when grown in the UK, and 9 of these also performed very well in Sweden. This was very promising in terms of breeding reed canary grass varieties that are suited for multiple European countries, and is important for a crop currently grown on a relatively small hectorage and where significant market segmentation would be difficult to justify. It was also reassuring that spaced plants of the high performing new populations trialled in WP1 were also among the high biomass plants. In other words there was a good correlation between performance as a spaced plant and performance in a plot. Biomass was harvested and chemical analyses performed for the accessions which were identified as of most interest as parents for future plant variety development. Overall, 80 individual plant selections were made based on performance in the UK and in Sweden for use in a crossing programme. Crossing started in 2015/16 and consisted of 4 blocks each containing 20 plants in a 5x4 grid comprising: 1) a UK population only (within); 2) the best of the best (between) from Aberystwyth; 3) from green harvest performance in Umea; and 4) and from brown harvest performance in Umea. Seed has been collected from the crossing blocks and represent the starting point for the next round of evaluations as potential new varieties in multi-location plot trials and as spaced individuals for further selection and crop improvement.
WP3: State of the art genomics and phenomics were applied to reed canary grass to help establish tools for a 21st Century precision breeding programme. Reed canary grass plants, including from the varieties and populations used in WP1, were used in two phenomics experiments. The first experiment was carried out in the phenomics facility in Aberystywth (National Plant Phenotyping Centre) and primarily assessed above ground phenotypic responses to water deficit. There were genotypic differences but all genotypes produced greatly reduced biomass and tiller numbers under water deficit. The automated facility is limited in terms of the pot shape and size that can be used, and the indication was therefore that reed canary grass drought tolerance was probably a function of its rooting phenotype. The second experiment was therefore designed to assess reed canary grass accessions under water deficit where there was greater capacity to assess rooting phenotypes using 1 m long pipes. Reed canary grass plantlets in plugs were transferred into the pipes and in some accessions roots had reached 50 cm in length in little more than a week. When the drought was imposed for a period of 6 weeks, before rewatering for 2 weeks, above ground biomass was greatly reduced, but below ground rooting scores were not as highly impacted. Interestingly, tiller numbers decreased in droughted plants but dramatically recovered after rewatering. Plant roots extended in all accessions and nearly all replicates along the entire 1 m pipes confirming the very deep rooting potential of reed canary grass, and again suggests that rooting depth is likely a mechanism by which the crop is able to survive multiple environmental stresses. Some accessions also exhibited significantly higher rooting mass in pipes than others which provides a potential trait and screening mechanism for future variety development.
A number of wide crosses between different reed canary grass accessions were made. This was informed by performance in the field as spaced plants, with the intention that the mapping crosses would have relevance to the plant breeding materials and plants used in the crossing blocks in WP2. One of the crosses which was successful in both directions (i.e. each plant as a male and female parent) was between UK (Bs5121/441) and Icelandic (NGB 4500.3) parent plants. A total of 238 progeny from this cross were generated, multiplied and planted in triplicate in a field in Aberystwyth. Leaf material was harvested from the mapping family and DNA extracted and used for genotyping by sequencing analyses. In addition, phenotypic data has been collected for early establishment traits.
WP4: Opportunities were explored for novel value chains and markets for reed canary grass. Reed canary grass can be a productive crop on marginal land, with economic benefits to farmers, and able to provide ecosystem services (including biodiversity, carbon sequestration, flooding mitigation and water quality). As the Common Agricultural Policy continues to reform payment for public goods/ ecosystem services are likely to become more important in the way that land owners and farmers are supported. The reed canary grass industry discussions and levels of interest have tended to focus on two main application areas where the crop has particular potential to create impact: 1) cultivation of reed canary grass on contaminated land and degraded soils, for example on brown field sites including those areas previously impacted by metal mining or smelting, and coal mining; and 2) as an alternative feedstock to maize for anaerobic digestion because it is perennial, requires fewer inputs, and doesn't leave the soil exposed over winter (thereby minimising soil loss, flooding and water quality issues) and can be cut at multiple times over the year providing a phased feedstock supply. During the project we also engaged with farmer groups including at two stakeholder (farmers, policymakers and academics) open days in 2014 and 2017, and represented the project (2015, 2016 and 2017) at the Royal Welsh Agricultural Show (one of the largest agricultural shows in Europe with > 240,000 visitors).
Exploitation Route Reed canary grass is a native grass of Europe which has a number of features including its tolerance of abiotic stresses. This could help make it a productive energy crop on marginal land bringing economic benefits to farmers and delivering ecosystem services for society which may also attract agricultural subsidies. The project is also being followed up by Dr Elaine Jensen in her Sêr Cymru Fellowship from the National Research Network Low Carbon, Energy & Environment. The topic of the fellowship is land reclamation and cultivation of energy crops including reed canary grass on ex-mining sites. Again, within this area of land reclamation on contaminated mine sites, Dr Jensen is submitting: 1) a PhD proposal to investigate the combined use of reed canary grass with beneficial bacteria on contaminated mine spoil, and 2) an expression of interest for a NERC grant to establish trials using reed canary grass to stabilize contaminated mine spoil, and reduce flooding and groundwater pollution from leachates. Reed canary grass will also feature in two public displays around the use of energy grasses, at the National Botanic Gardens of Wales, and at the Centre for Alternative Technology, Wales. In addition, reed canary grass would also be analysed along with other energy crop options that can deliver broader ecosystem services in the proposed new Supergen Bioenergy Hub proposal submitted to the EPSRC and also funded by BBSRC in January 2018.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Energy,Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Transport

Description The industry interest has tended to focus on two main areas of use: 1) cultivation of reed canary grass on contaminated land and degraded soils; and 2) as an alternative feedstock for anaerobic digestion. Because reed canary grass is perennial it has a lower requirement for inputs and doesn't leave the soil exposed over winter and therefore minimises risks of soil loss, flooding and water quality issues especially compared to annual cropping systems such as maize. In addition reed canary grass can be harvested at multiple times over the year thereby reducing storage requirements. We are continuing our discussions with seed companies on the potential to evaluate seed of several of the new varieties which outperformed Bamse in our trials, and also from the new populations generated in the project. Two of the high performing accessions have already been taken forward to trials on contaminated mine spoil sites in Wales and Poland, which involves industry and environmental agencies. We are in the process of obtaining biogas production data on 10 of the accessions, which we will disseminate to interested industrial partners, as well as to farmers via our links with the Farmers' Union of Wales (FUW). We continue to develop outreach material on reed canary grass to be used by the FUW.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Energy,Environment
Description Participation in BEIS consultation on the Bioeconomy
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
Description KESS2
Amount £52,885 (GBP)
Organisation European Social Fund (Welsh Government/ EU) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 12/2018 
End 12/2021
Description Collaboration on reed canary grass 
Organisation Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
Country Sweden 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Collaboration on the agronomy and genetics/ plant breeding of reed canary grass as a native energy and industrial crop. Aberystwyth University provides expertise on reed canary grass genetics, phenomics and plant breeding science. The sharing of information has helped to ensure compatibility between experiments and the exchange of ideas, expertise and knowledge of a wider range of technologies and facilities including of the National Plant Phenotyping Centre at Aberystwyth, and the approaches used for chemical analyses at both partners.
Collaborator Contribution The Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences provided plant materials and agronomy expertise, and information from field trials of materials in replicated trials in UK and Sweden to help inform selection of parents for future analysis and crossing blocks.
Impact Jensen E, Casler M, Farrar K, Finnan J, Lord R, Palmborg C, Donnison I. Reed canary grass: from production to end use. In E. Alexopoulou (Ed.), Perennial Grasses for Bioenergy and Bioproducts: Production, Uses, Sustainability and Markets for Giant Reed, Miscanthus, Switchgrass, Reed Canary Grass and Bamboo (pp 153-174). Elsevier Science. 2018.
Start Year 2013
Description BBC Wales Science Cafe: The Welsh Science Wishlist 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact An interview for BBC Radio Wales Science Cafe. The programme was ahead of the Welsh Government Elections in May 2016 and was to articulate The Welsh Science Wishlist for the incoming government. Iain Donnison gave the interview on wishes for the future environmental policy.

Science votes
The Welsh Government believes that science in Wales is world class. And on this programme we frequently trumpet the pioneering research at our universities. But is enough being done to build a strong and successful scientific community? Many in Wales are concerned that we are failing on science education and in preparing for the digital future. In this special edition of Science Café scientists reveal, for the policy makers, their wish lists. And ahead of next month's elections, the political parties outline their scientific priorities.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0776lxj
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