The branches that initiate near the base of grass plants, called tillers, could hold the key to a more efficient way to create biomass that can ultimately be converted into biofuel.

Jennifer Hawkins, as professor of biology at West Virginia University, is working with a team of researchers from Oklahoma State University, the University of California—Berkeley, and Brigham Young University to examine the genetic controls of tillering in corn, sorghum and foxtail millet.

The project is funded by a $3.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Plant Genome Research Program.

“An understanding of the genetic controls of tiller growth and development will assist in the engineering or breeding of plants for biomass accumulation. These plants could become valuable bioenergy crops,” Hawkins said.

Using traditional genetic research methods, Hawkins will sequence the genomes of a population of sorghum plants to see which genetic components most often associate with the presence of multiple branches, or tillers.

“During the domestication process, humans selected plants for high grain production,” Hawkins said. “Growing as many plants as possible in the smallest area results in more grain per acre, but also often leads to reduced tillering.”

“Domesticated plants are, therefore, excellent models for studying tillering because they can be directly compared to their wild ancestors that produce abundant tillers and generate large amounts of biomass.”

Sorghum is a potential energy crop that offers the opportunity to produce a considerable amount of biomass in a short growing season. Similarly corn, which uses the same farming practices, is a well-known producer of considerable amounts of the biomass that can be converted into various forms of biofuel.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced up to $14.5 million in funding for bioenergy programs made available through the 2014 Farm Bill. The investments, officials said, signaled a continued commitment by the Obama Administration to support bio-based technologies, enhanced rural economic development and the conversion of fossil fuel systems to renewable biomass fuel systems.

For more information contact Jennifer Hawkins at 304-293-0795 or