Genetic improvement of perennial biomass crops within a sustainable land use context

Lead Research Organisation: Rothamsted Research
Department Name: Unlisted


The main aim of this project is the development of perennial biomass crops as a source of renewable energy within a sustainable land-use context.

Renewable energy sources that are sustainable and carbon neutral are urgently needed to mitigate against greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions arising from the use of fossil fuels and to provide for increased future energy security.
Many crops can be grown to provide feedstock for renewable energy but perennial biomass crops have several important advantages: They are fast growing with the potential for recurrent high yields with low fertiliser and pesticide requirements. They are also non-food crops and life cycle analyses indicate high energy savings and GHG reductions.

This project focuses on energy trees and grasses and particularly on the two main perennial biomass crops grown commercially in the UK: short rotation coppice (SRC) willow (Salix spp.) and miscanthus (Miscanthus x giganteus). Although some advances have been made, these crops are still relatively underdeveloped and there is much scope for further improvement. The research in this project integrates genetics, agronomy, pathology, entomology, chemistry, ecology and taxonomy in an endeavour to provide the scientific underpinning for improved yield and sustainable biomass production.
Specific objectives are:
1. To characterise genetic relationships among species and accessions in the National Willow Collection (held at Rothamsted Research).
2. To develop efficient breeding strategies which take into account the genetic characteristics of the germplasm and breeding system of willow.
3. To improve our understanding of the physiological and genetic basis of biomass yield and composition.
4. To understand how yield and composition are affected by inputs and related to the development and phenology of the crop.
5. To underpin crop improvement with studies on insect pests and diseases.

Project involves studentships.
Description Willow breeding has been hampered by lack of knowledge on the genetic basis of important traits. This project integrated molecular marker and G (Genotype) x E (Environment) information into our breeding approach to develop new strategies which enhance the creation of genetically diverse pools from which to make future selections. Research on host/pest interactions allowed us to identify useful genetic diversity so that resistance can be maintained using non-chemical control methods. This project also investigated biomass composition in energy grasses and trees in relation to their potential for biofuel production. To ensure that bioenergy and biofuels are produced in sustainable ways the project investigated impacts of perennial biomass crops, particularly with regard to the environment (biodiversity, soils, GHG, etc). Preliminary studies on nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) were also initiated through a FQRNT postdoctoral fellowship to Frederic Pitre (from Canada). To investigate the possible link between biomass production (i.e. yield) and NUE, a subset of 12 genotypes of K8, including the yield extremes, was selected for a pot experiment designed to follow the seasonal cycling of nutrient at the whole plant level. The carbon and nitrogen budget is being documented as well as the allocation and partition of compounds using stable isotopes (13C and 15N). Data from this experiment will provide useful background for the breeding programme.
Exploitation Route The current controversies over biofuels from crops are mostly centred around the use of first generation food crops. The development of perennial biomass crops would provide more sustainable alternatives.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Energy,Environment

Description This integrated research is providing the scientific underpinning for improved yield and sustainable biomass production from perennial energy grasses and trees. The outputs will contribute to mitigation of global climate change and help increase future energy security.
First Year Of Impact 2006
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Energy,Environment
Impact Types Societal,Economic

Description Chelsea Flower Show 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Thousands of visitors come to Chelsea. The display was also visited by HRH Princess Anne

Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2008
Description National Association of Tangent Clubs 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Audience engaged in debate on bioenergy and growing willows

none known
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2009
Description SRC Growers Day 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presented results to SRC growers and shared experiences of growing SRC

Some of the SRC growers are now partners growing Rothamsted-bred willow varieties commercially
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2009