KINGSTON, RI – April 11, 2022 – Albert Kausch, director of the Plant Biotechnology Laboratory at the University of Rhode Island, welcomes 11 scientists from around the country and Argentina to a 10-day workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.
The Cereal Plant Transformation and Genome Editing Training Workshop, to be held at Kausch’s lab in West Kingston this week, will train participants to modify the DNA of sorghum to improve it as a bioenergetic crop. . Kausch and his colleagues received millions of dollars in federal grants to fund the research.
Sorghum is used worldwide as a feedstock and for the production of ethanol. Kausch says the Department of Energy (DOE) has been interested in developing sorghum as a bioenergy crop, using it as an alternative to corn. He points out that sorghum is drought tolerant and grows on marginal land, which means it can be grown where other crops cannot.
“This is an expertise-intensive area of biotechnology. There is only a small group of top researchers in this field,” he said. “There is a significant and growing need for people trained in this and related areas of agricultural biotechnology and bioenergy. There are many new careers and jobs, which did not exist five years ago, with very few people trained in this field. Most of us in our field today are increasingly concerned that while my generation tries to pass the torch, there is no one to take it. I worked to encourage, motivate and teach young scientists. Hence this workshop.
The DOE has a long history of developing bioenergy crops. “I’ve seen it mature significantly over the past 15 years to the point where the technology is such that making liquid fuel like gasoline, fuel oil (a term used for ship’s oil) and jet fuel is possible. And it’s in the price range that we can anticipate that it’ll probably be competitive for quite a while now. We’ve reached this crossover tipping point where technologies have improved and the outcome can be competitive on the market.
Bioenergy crops are defined as any plant material used to produce bioenergy. Bioenergy is “energy derived from recently living materials such as wood, crops, or animal waste” and can help reduce global fossil fuel consumption. Growing bioenergy crops has the potential to generate economic activity and employment on land that currently does not generate income or employment.
Since his beginnings in the 1980s, Kausch has focused on research on grain crops, which he describes as crops that feed the world. “There are 7.2 billion people on the planet, and half of them live on rice. And half of them live on less than two cups of rice a day. So part of our mission and this biology is to understand and improve grain crops.
Kausch’s lab received a DOE top award of $6 million about 15 years ago to fund research into bioenergy crops using advanced plant breeding and molecular biology approaches. He is currently funded as a co-principal investigator of a major DOE project with a $16 million award and as a principal investigator of a $2.1 million NSF award.
Kausch and his collaborators at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis will uncover another potential $18.5 million in funding in July.
Kausch attributes part of the success of his research to a visit by U.S. Senator Jack Reed, DR.I., more than a decade ago. “That visit really set in motion a whole program that has resulted in all of our bioenergy work and all of our collaborations since.”
In collaboration with the DOE, Kausch researched the fundamental tools for understanding plant biology, focusing on photosynthesis, drought tolerance, water use efficiency, and plants.
Kausch says the technology needed to use sorghum as a viable biofuel will depend on market needs. “I think if the need increases, the technology will come into place more quickly,” he said.
He attributes the slow development to the scarcity of money. “People think science is well funded, but it’s not. We are really struggling and have to be very thrifty. Hiring people, training people, getting people to help is really one of the biggest challenges right now.
Challenges aside, Kausch remains enthusiastic and optimistic about the event. “Training, education and research are essential. We will be performing experiments during the week that could set up some very important discoveries. It really is a great, great opportunity.
The workshop runs through April 20 at Kausch’s lab in the West Kingston Research Center, 530 Liberty Lane, West Kingston. He invites students to drop by the lab during the week, every day except Friday, between 3:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to chat with visiting plant scientists and talk about what they are working on.
Hugh Markey wrote this press release.