CoPIs: Christine Hawkes (University of Texas - Austin), Timothy H. Keitt (University of Texas - Austin), and Philip A. Fay (University of Texas - Austin/USDA - ARS Grassland, Soil and Water Research Lab)

Senior Collaborators: James A. Kiniry and Mari-Vaughan Johnson (USDA - ARS Grassland, Soil and Water Research Lab)

A major challenge facing the world is the growing demand for energy and the negative consequences of increased energy use on the environmental condition of the biosphere. In particular, increased atmospheric CO2 resulting from fossil fuel use is thought to be a major driver of climate change. Biofuels are one promising path for sustainable replacement of fossil fuels that may minimize anthropogenic climate change. However, biomass accumulation is constrained by physiological processes as well as environmental conditions, and productivity is very likely to be directly limited by increased drought stress associated with future climate change. Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) has been championed as one promising biofuel species. Despite a long history of field trials and agronomic development, surprisingly little is known about the basic stress physiology of switchgrass and few genomic tools have been developed to facilitate its improvement. This project explores the physiological and genomic responses of Panicum to environmental conditions as predicted under current climate models. The project includes screens of switchgrass germplasm, genetic mapping of physiological traits, genomic and ecological studies of responses to field imposed drought stress, and modeling of switchgrass performance under future climate change.

This research will expand the knowledge and tools needed to fully develop switchgrass as a biofuel crop as well as facilitate ongoing efforts to engineer crops for higher performance under drought conditions, one of the major limitations in agricultural productivity worldwide. In addition, the project will train the next generation of biofuels researchers through a novel undergraduate science training program, the Freshman Research Initiative (FRI), at the University of Texas - Austin. The FRI program involves the development of a multiple semester "research stream" for undergraduate students. Each research stream immerses young scientists in both the "big ideas" and the everyday tools needed to be a successful researcher, using a combination of traditional coursework, hands-on training, independent research, and close interaction with faculty mentors. This project will develop a new FRI stream on the "Biology of Biofuels" incorporating content and research projects on plant physiology, genetics/genomics, plant breeding, environmental biology, and climate change under the umbrella of switchgrass as a model biofuel. All data will be available through the project website and long-term through established data repositories (Gene Expression Omnibus, GEO,; NCBI Short Read Archive, SRA, as well as through Gramene ( Germplasm will be made available through the USDA National Plant Germplasm System ( The results of this research will be published in peer-reviewed journals and presented at international meetings.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS)
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Diane Jofuku Okamuro
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University of Texas Austin
United States
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