Newswise — West Virginia University biologists are part of a $40 million Department of Energy effort to create sustainable, cost-effective bioproducts through four new bioenergy research centers.

As part of the Center for Bioenergy Innovation led by the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Steve DiFazio and Jonathan Cumming received $1.25 million to increase the viability of the bioproducts industry by enhancing trees’ biofuel production, while Eddie Brzostek has received $718,000 as part of the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation led by the University of Illinois. 

Bioproducts can replace much of the fuels, chemicals, plastics and other resources that are currently derived from petroleum, creating the potential for decreased reliance on oil.

DiFazio and Cumming will develop cottonwood trees with rapid growth and cell-wall characteristics that enhance their extractability, allowing them to readily extract lignin, a glue-like substance that binds the cells and other materials in wood.

“One of the goals is to get the plants to produce lignin with a composition that is amenable to being converted to many different end products, such as carbon fibers, polyesters and plastics,” said DiFazio, professor of biology.  

Using molecular verification, DiFazio and Cumming will analyze the trees’ ecological and silvicultural characteristics, such as their responses to light, frost and disease, to evaluate possible unintended effects of the genes modified to produce efficient bioproducts.

“The team is developing transgenic plants that will vary in some of the wood characteristics. Our job is to see how they function,” said Cumming, professor of biology. “You can make something that has perfect cell wall qualities, but if it is susceptible to disease or insects or doesn’t stand up in the field, it doesn’t work.”

Part of the genus Populus, cottonwood trees are ideal for studying molecular variation because of their abundant resources and dominant role in many ecosystems.

“We have plantations here locally within the WVU farm system, the availability of which is a critical component to our contributions to the project,” DiFazio said. “Because the species grows on the West Coast, several of our plantations are also out west in Oregon and in Arizona.”

While DiFazio and Cumming work with feed stock, Brzostek will examine how conversions of natural ecosystems to biofuel fields will impact ecosystems services in industry.

Using predictive modeling, Brzostek will make predictions of how biofuel production impacts microbes that drive both soil carbon storage and nutrient release to aid plant growth. He will use empirical data from the Center’s experiments and genomics teams to train and validate the model.

“The big uncertainty in a lot of climate change models is how ecosystems on the land are going to respond. However, there is nothing below ground. There’s no roots, no soil microbes and very little about nutrients. I’ve always been interested in getting below-ground processes into these models, which is where I come in on this project,” said Brzostek, an assistant professor of forest ecology and ecosystem modeling. “This is something that has a direct impact on ways people manage land, how they think about how their management practices impact ecosystem services and gives them tools to do it better.”

Learn more about the DOE’s new bioenergy research centers