The project will study the potential for using different types of grass species under challenging climatic conditions (e.g. drought, salinity, flood and cold) to develop high yielding biofuel crops. The selection of material by partners in the project will focus on four taxa of perennial grasses. These have been selected as a result of a preliminary analysis and known characteristics of these groups (El Bassam, 2008). The taxa are as follows:
Miscanthus - with ca. 12 species, is a genus native to eastern or south-eastern Asia (Hodkinson et al., 2001). Its natural geographic range extends from northeastern Siberia, 50°N in the temperate zone, to Polynesia 22°S, in the tropical zone, westwards to central India and eastwards to Polynesia. It is therefore found in a wide range of climatic zones and biomes. They are adapted to different habitats from agricultural grasslands, dry grassland and even wet, saline, and polluted land. Selection in these habitats has resulted in various ecotypes (Clifton- Brown et al., 2008). Some species such as M. floridulus generally grow best at sea level in tropical conditions but others such as M. paniculatus can tolerate temperate and/or high altitude conditions up to altitudes of up to 3,100 m on dry mountain slopes in China (Shouliang & Renvoize, 2006).
Dactylis - is a monospecific genus. Dactylis glomerata is a large and highly variable mainly tetraploid complex. However, diploids exist in small areas around the Mediterranean, western and central Europe, north Italy, Ibiza, southern Spain, and Portugal. It grows in meadows, roadsides, open woodland, and stony hillsides (Tutin et al., 1980).
Festuca – is a genus of 450 largely perennial species. Festuca arundinacea is found in damp grassland, riverbanks and seashores. It is found in most of Europe but is absent from northern central and eastern Russia (Tutin et al., 1980). Large collections of Festuca exist and no new collections are planned as part of this project.
Phalaris - is a genus of ca. 20 species with a north temperate and circum-global distribution centred on the Mediterranean (Clayton & Renvoize, 1986; Cope & Gray, 2009). Phalaris arundinacea forms extensive monospecific stands and grows in wet places and shallow water that are unsuitable for most other agricultural purposes (Anderson et al., 2008). It grows throughout most of Europe except the extreme south (Tutin et al., 1980). However, related Phalaris spp. are found in the extreme south of Europe and would be a source of genes for the wider genepool.
Why study them? In particular, what is the relevance to biofuels?
The objective of this proposal is to spur the development of perennial grass crops for bioenergy by addressing the factors hampering their employment on marginal land and achieving their full yield potential. We will exploit their breeding potential and commercial relevance within an optimised production system to produce a stable source of biomass which will also include the opportunity to develop new plant-derived bioproducts. The delivery of optimised production of raw materials from agriculture as resources for added-value products will contribute to a more sustainable socio-economical and environmental performance of agriculture. This is because perennial grasses for energy can be grown on marginal lands or in environmentally sensitive areas, where conventional agricultural crops are either not economic to grow or where environmental demands restrict their production (Blanco-Canqui, 2010).
Marginal soil may often vary and be low in fertility. Since the marginal soils may be present in environmentally sensitive areas intensive fertilization may not be possible and low- input systems with high use-efficiency of available resources are essential. To optimise the use of growth resources on marginal land, we will also investigate the performance of sown grasslands consisting of mixtures of cultivars or species and even legumes to supply nitrogen to grassland (Vandermeer, 1989; Tilman et al., 2001).