Campus News

Professors receive $2 million to speed biofuel development

Andrew Paterson

With the help of grants from the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Energy, Chung-Jui Tsai and Andrew Paterson are conducting fundamental research to better understand the plants that may one day produce the fuel that powers vehicles and homes. Both researchers are members of UGA’s Bioenergy Systems Research Institute.

Tsai, a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar and professor in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources and the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, received
$1.496 million to study the importance of plant proteins called tubulin, which play critical roles in many basic plant functions.

Her lab is particularly interested in how tubulin affects the development of Populus, a genus of woody plant that includes species like poplar, aspen and cottonwood trees. Tubulin proteins are thought to regulate the wood development and, based on their recent findings, plant water use. If Tsai’s laboratory can modify tubulin levels, the researchers may be able to accelerate wood growth and make the trees more drought resistant.

Paterson, a Regents Professor in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, researches grasses that show potential as high-biomass energy crops. He is particularly interested in discovering more about the genetics of what he calls “plant architecture,” the number and size of stalks or branches that plants develop as they grow. Exploratory work conducted with graduate student Wenqian Kong provided the justification for his $575,000 award.

“A plant has choices to make as to how it invests its resources,” Paterson said. “We’d like to get a handle on genes that determine how plants allocate their resources across various kinds of branches.”

Once researchers identify and understand how these genes affect plant architecture, it will become possible to modify the plants so that they grow stalks, branches and leaves that are ideal for biofuel production.