UGA receives renewed funding as part of federal bioenergy research initiative

Athens, Ga. – The Department of Energy announced today that it has renewed funding for three bioenergy research centers, including the BioEnergy Science Center, a partnership of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the University of Georgia and other university and industry partners.

The three bioenergy research centers were established by DOE in 2007 to accelerate progress toward development of liquid biofuels that add an affordable, sustainable, domestically produced option to the nation’s energy supply. The BESC team includes more than 300 researchers from 18 academic and commercial partners.

The renewal of funding for BESC at $25 million per year followed extensive performance evaluation of the three federal research centers. DOE pledged funding for five years, subject to continued positive reviews and available funding.

“UGA researchers have made critical contributions to plant, microbial and analytical research over the previous five years of BESC that have helped to make renewed funding possible,” said Alan Darvill, Regents Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Plant Biology at the University of Georgia. Darvill is director of the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center, one of only three centers worldwide dedicated to the study of complex carbohydrates.

“We look forward to continued research productivity and innovation with all members of BESC over the next funding period,” Darvill said.

BESC research efforts are focused on enabling revolutionary breakthroughs in overcoming biomass recalcitrance-the resistance of plant walls to releasing the sugars locked inside their cells for conversion to alcohol. The aim is to enable the use of lignocellulosic biomass-wood and grass, mainly-to produce transportation fuels.

Lignocellulosic biomass is an attractive option because it is abundant and renewable; comes from non-food sources, including agricultural and wood waste; and can be grown on semi-agricultural lands that are not used for food crops.

BESC’s approach to improve accessibility to the sugars within biomass involves designing plant cell walls for rapid deconstruction and developing multi-tasking microbes for converting plant biomass into biofuels in a single step, thus eliminating some of the costly chemicals now used in the process. BESC researchers also apply advanced technologies to analyze chemical and structural changes within biomass and store, track, analyze and integrate data and understanding across the center.

In its first five years, BESC has disclosed more than 100 inventions, some of which have been licensed. These include a modified switchgrass with an improved biofuel yield that has now reached field trials with a commercial partner, and a genetically improved yeast that has the ability to digest sugars from plant cellulose, alongside the native ability to ferment the sugar into biofuel.

In addition to Darvill, principal investigators for the project include Michael Adams, Distinguished Research Professor of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Microbiology; Maor Bar-Peled, professor, plant biology; Jeffrey Bennetzen, Giles Professor of Molecular Biology and Functional Genomics, department of genetics; Katrien Devos, professor, crop and soil sciences; Michael Hahn, professor, plant biology; Debra Mohnen, professor, biochemistry and molecular biology; Janet Westpheling, professor, genetics; William York, professor, biochemistry and molecular biology; and Ying Xu, professor and the Regents-Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar, department of biochemistry and molecular biology, and director of the Institute of Bioinformatics.

David Lee, UGA vice president for research, serves on the BESC board of directors.