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Northeast Woody/Warm-season Biomass Consortium

Feedstock Improvement for Perennial Energy Crops

The Feedstock Improvement thrust will optimize low input perennial feedstock crops that research has shown to be the best suited for NE climates and marginal soils: shrub willow and perennial grasses.68 Our team includes the leading willow69 and switchgrass70 breeding programs in the NE, and we will leverage existing resources to select new cultivars with improved yield on marginal sites typical of the region and select for resistance to emerging pests and diseases.

These resources include extensive germplasm collections, existing elite pedigrees, mapping populations, and genomics-based tools for marker development and genetic analysis. We will deliver cultivars with improved performance and expanded range on marginal lands, including reclaimed mine land, which is abundant, available at low cost, and in desperate need of restoration to productive use.  These deliverables will be produced in the following specific tasks conducted by integrated teams spanning the region (WV, NJ, PA, and NY).

Task 2.1. Breeding of non-invasive triploid hybrids of willow displaying hybrid vigor (DiFazio, Smart)

Many current high-yielding commercial cultivars of willow developed through interspecific hybridization and phenotypic selection for yield traits are the putative triploid progeny of tetraploid and diploid parents.69 These progeny display heterosis and reduced fertility, which limits their potential to become weedy or invasive upon deployment.

We will initiate parallel recurrent selection programs to improve our populations of potential tetraploid (primarily S. miyabeana) and diploid parents (S. purpurea, S. integra, S. triandra, S. koriyanagi, and S. viminalis), simultaneously selecting for genotypes with improved yield, pest, and disease resistance.  We will increase our collection of tetraploid species (S. miyabeana) through collaboration with Profs. G. Kudo in Sapporo, Japan and S. Shi in Nanjing, China.

We seek to expand the diversity of our collection of S. purpurea through collaboration with Salix breeders in Poland71 and Ukraine and will use low-cost genotyping-by-sequencing72 to evaluate patterns of inheritance in triploid progeny and develop models for genomic selection of parents with good general and specific combining ability as parents of triploids This shortens the breeding cycle and increases selection intensity by enabling screening of seedlings using Genomic-Estimated Breeding Values to predict phenotypes that will develop at a much later age.72-74

Task 2.2. Genetic basis for pest and disease resistance in willow and perennial grasses (Bonos, Smart, Viands)

This task will focus effort on improving breeding resistance to the greatest biotic threats to sustainable production that are emerging through the course of scale-up of perennial bioenergy feedstocks.75 We will survey foundation breeding materials and germplasm collections in the field, including available association mapping populations of Salix for resistance to Melampsora rust, willow beetle, and potato leafhopper and of switchgrass for resistance to rust, smut, anthracnose, and stem borer. Studies will determine the influence of pests on biomass yield. QTL mapping populations will be developed using parents with wide phenotypic variance in resistance.  These will be phenotyped in parallel using in vitro inoculations in collaboration with plant pathologists Drs. G. Bergstrom and G. Hudler to allow for reliable phenotyping and in the field in inheritance studies.   

Task 2.3. Breeding and selection of cultivars adapted for NE conditions (Bonos, Hall, Smart, Viands, Richards)

We recognize the breeding effort for switchgrass that was funded in the previous round of CAP projects (Iowa State), but this does not include selection in NE soils and climates. Our project will focus on breeding and selection of willow and switchgrass cultivars for the poorly drained, acidic, and high clay soils of the NE agricultural landscape. We will evaluate parental and foundation breeding material for flooding tolerance, resistance to low pH and high aluminum concentrations, and high clay soils in field and greenhouse trials, then conduct crosses to capitalize on the genotypic variance present in our germplasm collections. This task will integrate with the Sustainability Systems Task 4.1., which will characterize site factors critical for growth performance across a wide range of willow yield trials. The perennial grass breeding programs at Cornell and Rutgers have been evaluating germplasm for important traits including improved germination under low soil temperatures and vigor on poorly drained and sandy marginal soils. This selected germplasm will be screened for tolerance to the above soil conditions and breeders will work cooperatively to test germplasm regionally, select for the traits most appropriate for each region and combine synergistic traits of both breeding programs.

Task 2.4. Breeding and selection for willow and switchgrass yields on reclaimed mine land (Bonos, Carlson, DiFazio, Hall, Skousen, Smart, Viands)

There is about 0.5 million ha of disturbed mine land11 in WV (2nd in U.S.), PA (4th ), and eastern OH (14th) that has been reclaimed by grading the blasted overburden material and replacing native topsoil salvaged from the site, and seeding aggressive perennial cool-season grasses for erosion control.  The extreme disturbance to the normal structure, chemistry, and biology of these soils makes them challenging as substrates to support productive crop growth.  They are characterized by low or high soil pH, high salinity, high heavy metal content, variable drainage, poor soil structure, high rock fragment content, and absence of typical soil microbes. 

Yet, this land is readily available for attempted cultivation of perennial feedstock crops at a low cost. We will phenotype collections of willow and perennial grasses for their ability to establish and grow on sites typical of reclaimed mine land sites in WV and PA. Switchgrass and willow breeding material from Cornell and Rutgers breeding programs will be screened on reclaimed mine lands to identify cultivars and breeding lines with improved performance on this unique substrate. Biosolids composts will be included as treatments in field trials to determine if composts influence disease incidence and other biomass quality traits. 

Mycorrhizal establishment is necessary for maximum biomass yields and long term sustainability on marginal sites.76 Mycorrhiza enhance access of the roots to deeper water and mineral supplies than surface soil supplementation can provide.77-79 Elemental analysis and metagenomics (total soil DNA sequencing) will be used to characterize role of mycorrhizal species and soil composition in biomass yields at the trial sites. Correlations of soil microbiome composition and fertility with yields of willow and switchgrass genotypes and environmental stress responses will be evaluated in the context of potential for improving the sustainability of future growth on these sites through breeding or through site-specific soil amendments.  

Expected outcomes

Expected outcomes include:

NEWBio (consortium members below) is supported by Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant no. 2012-68005-19703 
from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
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