Optimising development for improved yield quality in the perennial bioenergy crop Miscanthus

Lead Research Organisation: Aberystwyth University
Department Name: IBERS

Abstract

Low carbon technologies including bioenergy and industrial biotechnology are seen as important growth sectors within the UK economy by BIS and will need sustainable supplies of feedstock. Miscanthus is one of the main dedicated biomass crops identified as having potential in the UK and globally. Low initial yield affects the economics and GHG balance of Miscanthus and this will be addressed in the project. The project will involve research to improve the performance of Miscanthus and allow new varieties bred at IBERS to be better utilised. The project will complement and enhance Terravesta's plans to roll out seed-based Miscanthus hybrids to deliver biomass in the UK market producing up to 22TWH with a current market value of £360m by 2030. The project will achieve impact through Terravesta's dissemination activities with farmers and end users and the company will involve the student and their work as exemplars of new developments in Miscanthus.
We hypothesise that early growth under glasshouse conditions combined with field growth under protective biodegradable film will extend the establishment period for Miscanthus producing improved overwintering and increased yield in subsequent years. The student will monitor growth and yield over subsequent seasons and will model environment and yield interactions (Year 2 and 3).
We hypothesise that Miscanthus elongation growth curves represent a suitable synthesis of trait combinations that contribute to early establishment yield. The student will develop parameterised growth curves (Year 2) (e.g. Woods incomplete gamma function) to identify underlying genetic components that contribute to successful early establishment in both germinating seeds, seedlings and field grown plants. Seedling growth curves will be produced using image analysis of Miscanthus hybrid seed, from 6 diverse genotypes under 2 temperatures. The 6 genotypes will be from distinct genotypic groups and geographical origins. Populations that segregate for seed-to-seedling growth parameters will be grown to maturity to relate seedling growth parameters to first year yield. The student will also analyse growth curves from an established Miscanthus diversity trial in which much data is available including NGS sequencing and some simple trait analysis. The parameters will be compared with trait data from other projects and used in association studies to identify markers associated with parameters from early season growth curves (Year 2). The student will utilise bioinformatics tools available at Aberystwyth to verify marker associations as far as possible/necessary to produce publishable data. Exemplar genotypes from the field study will be grown in controlled environments to verify field analysis and to generate detailed curve parameter to trait associations (Year 3).
We hypothesise that improved senescence after the first year will increase yield and will allow high yielding varieties to be grown in the UK that are currently not available due to overwintering loss. Miscanthus will be chemically induced to senesce in pot experiments to identify the most suitable chemical(s) for use in field studies. Rhizome development and metabolic flux will be measured using a Micromass LCT mass spectrometer (Years 1 & 2). This will provide fundamental insights into the regulation of senescence in rhizomatous Miscanthus at the metabolic level. In collaboration with Terravesta the student will establish field plot studies of first year growth of M. x giganteus and a high yielding novel hybrid that does not overwinter in the UK. The trial will be replicated and will include control sprays and chemically induced senescence (Autumn Year 2). Measurements will include the morphological difference in senescence progression from chlorophyll (SPAD) and fluorescence measurements (PAM) in trial plants after growth year 1, plus the impact on subsequent harvested crop quality, as a biochemical measure of senescence.

Publications

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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
BB/M016269/1 01/12/2015 30/11/2019
1674196 Studentship BB/M016269/1 01/12/2015 30/11/2019 Rebecca Jane Wilson
 
Description Further improvement of the plug planting knowledge and techniques used by the 'Miscanthus from seed' initiative based at Aberystwyth University and Terravesta Ltd (Lincoln). Analysis into many potential growth enhancement techniques has been done on plugs from germination to seedling growth, and through to field establishment and over wintering survival. Optimal plug growth characteristics for achieving good establishment and a high yield have also been assessed. All results have been taken on board by the growing team, and those options which are commercially scalable have been implemented, such as module size for the plug, growth conditions, compost compaction, and timing of sowing and planting. Further funding has been awarded to the research group, and some of the conclusions reached by this project, will go on to inform ways of best practice for planting Miscanthus plugs both locally in the UK and more internationally, as the business partner Terravesta also have business links across Europe.
In addition to this, some steps forward were also made in the area of encouraging the first year plants to senesce the above ground material in time for winter chill, by using foliar spray applications of variable concentrations of liquid ethylene. This will allow further work using liquid ethylene in dose response repeated experiments to verify correct concentrations required, and balance this with the cost of the materials.
Exploitation Route The university Miscanthus department will continue to improve and test plug planting regimes, based on the results gathered in this project. This knowledge will go on to be used at the industrial partner 'Terravesta' who roll out the crop on a large scale to farmers both commercially and experimentally in the UK and more recently in areas including Poland, Moldova, and South Africa. Knowledge acquired here is being put forward into an ongoing 5 year project called 'grace' which focuses on optimizing Miscanthus (and Hemp) value chains.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Energy,Environment

 
Description Findings are being implemented into the best practice plug plant growth protocols at Terravesta, which are in turn being used to inform the large commercial nursery Bell Brothers in Boston (Lincoln) of how best to produce the most effective plug plants for the trials initiated by Terravesta. Mass scale roll out of plug planting is now realizable, and constant refining and improvement as a result of this and ongoing projects will further optimize the commercial value and reliability of seed based Miscanthus hybrid plug plants.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Education,Energy,Environment
Impact Types Economic

 
Description Terravesta industrial partner 
Organisation Terravesta Ltd
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Work undertaken by myself and the research team at Aberystwyth University has informed Terravesta on new best practice guidelines for producing the best plug plants for their own trials and commercial ventures. The team at Aberystwyth form the scientific knowledge side of the partnership, producing new seeded hybrids, testing and experimenting on the progeny, and furthering the knowledge base of production of good plants.
Collaborator Contribution Terravesta were the largest contributing industrial partner involved in the project, as the project was an iCase award. They contributed both financially and educationally, with some work experience time being undertaken at their offices in Lincoln. They also hosted and organized quarterly meetings for the Innovate UK project 'Miscanthus Upscaling Technology' or 'MUST'. This Innovate UK project was linked to the project in question here educationally but had no financial contribution.
Impact A good relationship has built up between myself and the team at Aberystwyth University, and the company partnership with Terravesta. Plug planting techniques and improvements that came out of the PhD project, are now being used in protocols used by the company, and further collaboration between them and Aberystwyth University has commenced, on the EU project 'GRACE'.
Start Year 2016
 
Description End of MUST project finale and farm walk 
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 Industry/Business
Results and Impact Many business partners and land owners involved in or interested in the outcomes of the Miscanthus Upscaling technology project were invited to an open day in the main trial fields, where participants could look at the farming machinery involved, inspect the Miscanthus plots, talk to those involved, and be given multiple presentations about the project conclusions and the intended next steps. This lead to increased networking, interest and the potential for further collaboration further down the line
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Quarterly project meetings with Innovate UK and Terravesta, along with other industrial partners 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact The Miscanthus Upscaling Technology project required quarterly meetings, with all related businesses attending, in order to catch up and present recent findings, financial budgets and next steps. The meetings allowed networking and good relationships to build up between the business partners, many of which are still ongoing in new projects, not related to this one. Dissemination and next steps were an important part of the discussion for getting the business to reach a larger audience, primarily within the farming community, and also the selling of Miscanthus products.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017,2018,2019