University researchers receive grant to study biofuel

Jameson Pitts

The light-brown prairie grass that fills the greenhouse on the roof of Welch Hall might look plain, but the undergraduate students analyzing samples in the adjacent laboratory are working to maximize its full potential.

University researchers will receive $15 million in government grant funding to lead a national study on the biofuel potential of the switchgrass and panicgrass crops, housed in the rooftop greenhouse. Portions of the funding are earmarked for a Freshman Research Initiative course and undergraduate lab internships. Large-scale production of biofuels can reduce the climate change effects of fossil fuels, according to University researchers.

Thomas Juenger, a UT researcher who runs an integrative biology lab, will direct the research across the country. To rapidly develop a biofuel candidate, Juenger said his team will use genomic selection to reduce the time it takes to breed traits into the crop.

“The grant is a large collaborative project,” Juenger said in an email. “UT will act as a hub for interaction, data sharing and integration.”

Brandon Campitelli, who teaches the Biology of Biofuels course in the initiative, said the new grant funding will allow researchers to grow switchgrass at test plots across the country in order to study the genes responsible for traits that are beneficial in certain regions.    

“If this is going to become a major biofuel candidate, then we want to know how it’s going to perform at all these different locations,” Campitelli said.

Public health junior Nicole Carrabba, who began working with the Juenger Laboratory after taking the Biology of Biofuels course, is currently studying variation in switchgrass seed size.

“I saw biofuels, and I was like, ‘it’d be really cool to contribute to something so important,’” Carrabba said. “I can be a little, small part to the puzzle.”

In addition to supporting the biofuels course, the funding also includes “Research Experiences,” undergraduate research internships.

“One of our ideas in the future … will be to hire students using these Research Experience grants to send them to some of these locations and actually do research with [collaborating institutions] there,” Campitelli said.

The Freshman Research Initiative allows students gain experience that can lead to future laboratory positions, according to Erin Dolan, executive director of the program that oversees the freshman research initiative.

“FRI is really our gem, a major program that involves students in doing the work of science,” Dolan said.