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BBSRC helps open up fresh fields for harnessing carbon-cutting grass

Copyright: IBERS

In terms of versatility, Miscanthus sits at the top table of potential carbon-reducing options. First attracting attention as a possible energy source, it’s now clear this tropical grass could deliver cuts in emissions in other ways too. The last 15 years have seen the story make many advances. In the UK, with BBSRC support, the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) has played a critical role. Contributing to breakthroughs such as sequencing the crop’s genome for the first time, IBERS insights are accelerating the prospect of Miscanthus emerging as a significant weapon in our carbon-cutting arsenal.

Key impacts

  • Ten new Miscanthus species now licensed and undergoing commercial growing trials.
  • Seeds bred that are quicker to plant and lighter to transport than root portions, reducing the energy input for crop establishment.
  • BBSRC-supported research brings together different centres of expertise, catalyses global cooperation and accelerates ongoing cycle of knowledge development.
  • Genome sequencing paves the way for customising Miscanthus through follow-up research enabling prediction of crop traits from seedlings, for instance.
  • Huge potential to help the UK meet its net-zero carbon commitment for 2050 (ref 1), through bioenergy or by locking carbon in the soil.
  • Miscanthus shows potential for reducing reliance on fossil fuels in chemicals manufacture and provide a low-carbon construction material.

Harvest for the world

Miscanthus appeared on researchers’ radar thanks to its potential as an energy source. Indigenous to South East Asia, it had traditionally been little-known outside horticultural circles. But the growing focus on climate change and insuring economies against oil price shocks triggered a dramatic shift. “It’s an unusual crop,” says Professor Iain Donnison of IBERS at Aberystwyth University. “It can quickly produce, in multiple environments, lots of biomass for burning in power stations. For the UK, its excellent tolerance of cold temperatures and highly efficient photosynthesis and water use make it a great option.”

After early work in the 1990s, the new century saw the UK push to assess the potential of a crop currently estimated to be capable, with other sustainable biomass, of meeting 5-10% of UK energy needs (ref 2) and boosting the drive to decarbonise worldwide. The research would have many strands and the long pedigree of IBERS in grass science – not least its expert understanding of the pivotal importance of plant genetics – made it a natural spearhead, securing support from BBSRC, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), Innovate UK and industry.

Biological aspects remained central and, since the mid-2000s, with long- and shorter-term BBSRC support, IBERS has explored them vigorously. “The big question was whether Miscanthus could be grown at industrial scale in the UK,” Iain comments. “But accommodating changing priorities, such as thoroughly understanding the ecological impacts, has been key too.”

Seeds of progress

Everything would hang on the ability to breed varieties which would thrive in UK conditions, especially on low-quality land less suited to food production. IBERS experts regularly visited South East Asia, working with local partners in accordance with strict ethical standards (ref 3) to collect samples enabling plants to be grown and hybrids developed back home. “Our plant quarantine facilities meant we could bring back root portions as well as seeds,” Donnison recalls. “So the plants we grew had exactly the same genetics as their parents and the same ability to produce lots of biomass.”

In numbers:

0 the UK’s net carbon emissions target for 2050
10 Miscanthus varieties, developed by IBERS, now licensed to commercial growers
Over £12 million invested by BBSRC supporting research in Miscanthus at IBERS and Aberystwyth University
£4.3 million awarded by UKRI to a consortium led by Prof Donnison to explore the use of perennial biomass crops in greenhouse gas removal
5-10% the potential contribution of sustainable biomass to UK energy supplies

Simultaneously, IBERS busily developed a scientific understanding of different Miscanthus varieties plus computer modelling capabilities to predict their performance. Collaboration with UK companies and organisations and – via BBSRC partnering grants – the fostering of global links were also crucial. These relationships expanded beyond researchers to those in the field, encouraging the sharing of protocols in experiments, such as weed control and building skills across the teams.

With the research making good progress on accelerating domestication, enhancing resilience to drought and waterlogging, and yield-related issues, IBERS could home-in on specific varieties and begin cross-breeding. The ability to produce plants from seeds (vital to keeping costs down and increasing crop diversity) was a key advance. From a carbon reduction perspective, the ability to grow Miscanthus from seeds (quicker to plant and lighter to transport than root portions) reduces energy inputs too. In 2019, licences were signed for the most promising hybrids, which have also been planted in commercial trials across Europe.

But, arguably, an even bigger breakthrough was just round the corner. The announcement in 2020 that the complex genome of Miscanthus had been sequenced for the first time was a quantum leap forward (ref 4). As part of the global team behind it, IBERS made an important contribution founded in its long track record in forage grasses (ref 5). “Cracking the genome sequence has huge implications,” Iain Donnison enthuses. “It’s a massive boost to our ability to breed varieties for specific climates, environments and uses.”

Video

Video credit: BBSRC
On-screen captions and an autogenerated transcript is available on YouTube.

Vegetation with versatility

Genome sequencing will particularly help optimise the inherent versatility of Miscanthus, including breeding varieties designed to maximise the different amount of carbon each variety fixes in the surrounding soil. Cross-checking sequencing data with long-term field experiments will also help boost carbon-fixing performance.

Miscanthus could deliver countless other carbon-cutting dividends (for example, incorporating its fibres into car body parts would make these lighter and boost fuel efficiency) and substantial work is in progress to explore them (ref 6). Substantial interest is focused on using Miscanthus to replace chemicals and materials derived from fossil fuels or produced through energy-intensive processes. Funded by BBSRC and the Welsh Government, Aberystwyth’s Innovation & Enterprise Campus (Aberinnovation (ref 7)) is, for instance, biorefining plant-derived sugars into transport fuels and chemical building blocks for green manufacturing.

But let’s return to Miscanthus as an energy source. “It used to be considered a carbon-neutral fuel,” Iain Donnison explains. “But with net zero the objective, attention is switching to capturing and storing the carbon released – making it a negative-emissions option. The long-term nature of the experiments we can undertake in collaboration with other Research Council institutes like the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH) is key to a deeper understanding of issues such as different varieties’ energy value and soil-carbon capabilities.”

Miscanthus has no end of potential surprises up its sleeve. The future will reveal how many become rooted in reality.

Final say…

“This field of research could help meet some big challenges in addition to climate change, such as the need to reconnect rural and urban economies – for instance, by growing crops for construction materials to help meet demands for low-carbon and sustainable housing.”

Professor Iain Donnison, IBERS

For more information on Miscanthus research see our previous case study, or to learn more about the biomass sector watch BBNet’s series of short videos.


References

  1. UK Becomes First Major Economy to Pass Net Zero Emissions Law
  2. Biomass in a low-carbon economy - Climate Change Committee (theccc.org.uk), Page 10 – Last accessed 28 June 2021
  3. Supported by Innovate UK grants United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources
  4. Aberystwyth University press release
  5. 100 Years of Plant Breeding : IBERS , Aberystwyth University
  6. For instance, the GRACE project
  7. Funding Partners | AberInnovation Last accessed 28 June 2021