This Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I project will test the feasibility of a ?whole transcriptome? shotgun DNA sequencing approach to identify candidate alleles that can be associated with agronomically important traits in Pongamia pinnata, a leguminous tree that produces large quantities of seed oil suitable for biodiesel refining. This approach looks simultaneously for specific DNA changes (SNPs) among large numbers of expressed gene variants, alleles, that may correlate with physical traits. Specific DNA markers of these alleles will permit the tracking of multiple valuable traits within breeding populations and accelerate the development of commercial stocks of Pongamia, This remarkable but undomesticated, biofuel feedstock tree grows on marginal land unsuited for food production, fixes nitrogen in association with rhizobium, and requires low levels of water. The broader/commercial impacts of this research are that commercialization of Pongamia will proceed more readily if based solidly upon research and breeding to produce a phenotypically stable and predictable crop. The major issue for the biodiesel refining industry remains the lack of a scalable, reliable, cost effective feedstock of raw oil, not the lack of refining capacity. Pongamia provides owners of marginal land with just such a crop that can yield oil for the biofuel industry at a profit to land owners and refiners, thus offering a real market solution to renewable transportation fuel.
This Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I project validated an approach to accelerate commercialization of a novel bio-oil and bio-based products crop, Milletia pinnata (formerly Pongamia pinnata). Pongamia is a legume tree that grows well in poor soils, fixes nitrogen, and produces an oilseed crop that is suitable for bio-based products. The approach, marker accelerated breeding, combines large numbers of genetic changes in specific genes with detailed physical and cellular phenotypes of agronomic importance, through statistical associations. Once the associations are confirmed, valuable plant traits can be selected and tracked using rapid screening of the DNA rather than the slow, destructive measurements of the physical traits, thus saving time and money. We have focused our first scenario on salt tolerance, an important property to expand cultivation of pongamia further into marginal saline areas of the US. We estimate that salt tolerant pongamia varieties could open up as much as 2 million acres for the cultivation of this high value crop for producing renewable fuel and bio-based products. The NSF-funded project produced a data set of 98,000 usable genetic changes and demonstrated an inherited or genetic basis for cellular changes in seedling roots and leaves associated with salt stress. The broader impact/commercial potential of this project addresses the long-standing problem of how to produce agriculture crops for energy at a profit and without competing for food production. The Phase I project results provide the first step in producing salt tolerant pongamia varieties and begin the development of an infrastructure or platform to accelerate the development of pongamia varieties with many more important agronomic traits. Such plant varieties will expand the land base suitable for pongamia cultivation and further strengthen the profit margin for land owners, providing incentives for adoption of this novel crop and providing one solution for renewable fuel without competing with food production. To accomplish this project TerViva established a collaborative network with scientists at the University of California, Davis, Texas A&M University, and Mills College. The relationship with Mills College in particular, an all womenâ€™s college, will promote the engagement of undergraduate women science majors in applied chemical and renewable energy research, further expanding the broader social impacts of the ongoing work.