Main research question/goal
The aim of this research project is to develop an innovative concept for breeding purposes. The knowledge will come from a biotechnological approach to improve digestibility and enhance biomass production in grasses. The main focus here is to translate expertise obtained in the dicot model plant Arabidopsis thaliana to the monocot species Brachypodium distachyon and Zea mays. Brachypodium distachyon is a relatively new model system for temperate grasses such as wheat and barley but also for bioenergy crops such as Miscanthus and switchgrass. The knowhow stems from the combined effort of two Flemish research institutes: ILVO Plant department (Institute for Agricultural and Fisheries Research) and VIB-PSB (Flemish institute for Biotechnology department of Plant Systems Biology). The ILVO Plant department can rely on years of expertise in the field of biomass yield, digestibility and sugar content in animal feed and bioenergy crops. The VIB-PSB is a leading institute with top quality basic research in the field of intrinsic yield genes and cell wall biology in Arabidopsis and Poplar.Research approach
Cell wall digestibility is a very well-studied topic due to its agricultural importance in animal feed production. However, this research field has recently expanded with the potential of lignocellulosic crops as an alternative for fossil fuel. Cell wall digestibility and saccharification potential in grasses is known to be highly influenced by the presence of phenolic compounds such as ferulates and lignin. Improved cell wall digestibility is often correlated with a reduction in lignin content resulting in an elevated amount of sugars that can be released from the cell wall. The genes responsible for lignin biosynthesis are characterized and are a target for breeding for improved digestibility. However, targeted suppression or disruption of these genes can result in a yield penalty (cfr. Brown-midrib mutants in maize and Sorghum). A way to compensate for the decrease in growth potential is the application of genes that when overexpressed or mutated lead to bigger plant structures. A series of these intrinsic yield genes(IYGs) are reported in the dicot model system Arabidopsis and can be validated in a monocot species such as Brachypodium and maize.Relevance/Valorisation
Grasses, including maize, are of extreme agricultural importance. Grasses supply the world’s need in food and feed and form an unlimited, renewable supply for bioenergy production. In the field of animal feed the combination of improved yield together with enhanced cell wall digestibility has since long been the main target for breeders. For the application as feedstock for bioenergy production both high degradability and biomass yield are essential criteria for worldwide application. We expect the results obtained in this project can contribute to the formation of innovative breeding strategies for high quality biomass production in grasses.