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Development and field assessment of transgenic hybrid switchgrass for improved biofuel traits

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Abstract

Development of commercially relevant bioenergy switchgrass cultivars requires reducing recalcitrance for bioprocessing without compromising biomass yield. Low-lignin transgenic switchgrass has been produced via down-regulation of caffeic acid O-methyltransferase (COMT), a lignin biosynthetic enzyme, or by over-expression of the MYB4 transcription factor, a repressor of the lignin biosynthetic pathway. The aim of this study was to evaluate parents and selected hybrids obtained from COMT and MYB4 hybrid families under field conditions for agronomic performance and biomass quality. Plant height, width, number of tillers, dry weight, cell wall composition including lignin content, and sugar release were measured after the establishment year (2014) and the second growing season (2015). For COMT hybrids, biomass yield of the transgenic hybrids was similar to or greater than the wild-type parents selected for high biomass. Lignin content of COMT transgenic hybrids was reduced by 10%, S/G ratio decreased by 27%, and sugar release increased between 20% and 44% compared to their wild-type parents. These results indicate that hybridization of COMT with a high-yielding locally selected genotype resulted in both improved agronomic performance and enhanced biomass quality in the offspring. On the other hand, the MYB transgenic hybrid showed a 10% reduction in biomass yield compared with its wild-type parent in year 1, but not in year 2. The lignin S/G ratio was not reduced in MYB transgenic hybrids, nor was sugar release increased. These data indicate that the MYB transgene may not be suitable for an agronomic setting. More testing is needed of transgenic and wild-type, high-biomass selections for use as breeding parents. These results show that combining low-lignin transgenic switchgrass with a breeding and selection program for biomass yield will allow for the deployment of effective transgenes in high-yielding genetic backgrounds.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Fred Allen, Hem Bhandari, and Ken Goddard for providing the Tennessee field accessions of switchgrass field selections. Richard Dixon provided MYB4 parent plants. We also thank Hayley Rideout, Ben Wolfe, Marcus Laxton, and the UT field staff for assistance with data collection, preparing samples for cell wall characterization and general field maintenance, and Reggie Millwood for assistance with the USDA APHIS BRS permit regulations. This work was supported by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (United States Department of Agriculture) and Southeastern Partnership for Integrated Biomass and Supply Systems (The IBSS Partnership), and enabled by the Bioenergy Science Center. The Bioenergy Science Center is a U.S. Department of Energy Bioenergy Research Center supported by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research in the DOE Office of Science.

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Correspondence to Lisa Alexander.

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Alexander, L., Hatcher, C., Mazarei, M. et al. Development and field assessment of transgenic hybrid switchgrass for improved biofuel traits. Euphytica 216, 25 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10681-020-2558-3

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Keywords

  • Panicum virgatum
  • Biomass
  • Lignin
  • Recalcitrance
  • Renewable energy