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Willow as bioenergy crop gets closer in NY State

August 5, 2012, Ithaca, NY - The commercialization of shrub willow as a bioenergy crop could be years closer, thanks to a $1.37 million grant that will allow Cornell University researchers to take advantage of the newly mapped shrub willow genome.


August 5, 2012
By Scott Jamieson


Topics

Larry Smart, associate professor of horticulture,
has partnered with Christopher D. Town, professor at the J. Craig Venter
Institute in Rockville, Md., to study the genetics of superior growth
in hybrids of shrub willow, a fast-growing, perennial cool-climate woody
plant.

"Determining the precise genetic mechanisms that
produce hybrid vigor has been a scientific challenge for a century,"
said Smart.

Unlocking those mechanisms and then developing
simple techniques for finding the genetic fingerprint for hybrid vigor
in parent species could cut the time it takes to identify promising
progeny, Smart said. And time is money; for farmers to adopt a new crop
like shrub willow — and for companies to accept the end product — they
need assurance of long-term profitability before taking on the
associated higher risk.

"We think the results of this research will take
years off the cycle time needed to find the best growing shrub willow
hybrids and with consistent increases in yield each cycle, we will
rapidly advance commercialization of this emerging bioenergy crop,"
Smart said.

The grant is part of a $41 million investment by the
U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in
research to improve efficiency and innovation in biofuel production and
feedstocks. It is the first project to take advantage of the recently
mapped shrub willow genome, the product of a three-year DOE-funded
endeavor by Smart's lab, JCVI and several DOE national labs.

The New York State Department of Agriculture and
Markets estimates there are more than 1 million acres of poorly drained
and otherwise underutilized land in New York alone. Using this land to
grow shrub willow could create a new regional cash crop. Unlike corn or
sugarcane, shrub willow does not need the more fertile soil used for the
production of fruit, vegetables or livestock feed. It also needs less
fertilizer and other inputs to thrive.

"Willow represents an important bioenergy crop for
the northeastern part of the U.S., and the hybrids that are being
developed by Cornell have the potential to provide higher yields of more
suitable biomass and with more efficient use of resources such as
water," Town said.

Improving shrub willow yields on marginal land is
the main goal for Smart's willow breeding program, which began in 1998.
Smart also participates in projects to demonstrate its use and value to
farmers, biofuels companies, small businesses and municipalities. This
includes the installation of a new boiler to heat two buildings at the
New York State Agricultural Experiment Station with willow biofuel
produced on its Geneva campus.

"We're at a key juncture in New York, where we're
deciding whether or not to extract more fossil fuels locally. At the
same time, we need to explore renewable energy options that will
stimulate the local economy and not contribute to global climate
change," Smart said.


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