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Scientists Discover Bioenergy Grass that Can Survive Freezing Temperature

Nov 29, 2016 07:20 AM EST

Scientists from the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) have discovered the power of prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), revealing that this native perennial grass used for biomass energy production can withstand extremely cold temperature.

The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, states that agronomist D.K. Lee first observed the high tolerance of prairie cordgrass back in 2012 in the Midwest when a late frost suddenly came during mid-April after an extremely warm March.

"When I went out in the morning, I was just shocked. All the grasses were covered in frost. By noon, Miscanthus and switchgrass had turned black. The only plant that was untouched was prairie cordgrass," Lee recalled via Science Daily.

The incident, according to Lee, led to the discovery that besides its ability to withstand floods and high salt levels, prairie cordgrass could also live in freezing temperatures. This tolerance to cold temperature is important for biomass crops, such as prairie cordgrass, as they thrive on "marginal land," which means that it can grow in various areas where environmental conditions are not suitable.

"Unlike salt and flooding stress, freezing usually happens abruptly. The plant has to react quickly. To find out what was happening at the molecular level, we grew cordgrass in a growth chamber at 25 degrees Celsius and then abruptly moved them into another growth chamber set to -5 degrees," Lee said.

Lee is looking forward to studying the prairie cordgrass and identifying the molecules that are responsible for its high tolerance from different environmental stressors. Lee and his team theorize that the plant's initial genetic response protects its cells from freezing temperatures by pumping ions outside the cell to avoid "seed crystals" from bursting.

"We looked at gene expression within five minutes after exposure to freezing temperatures. We found some unique genes being activated right away and then different ones turning on 30 minutes later," Lee said.

This new discovery can lead to understanding about the freezing tolerance of crops and eventually use it on other crops, such as corn, to increase production even during cold temperatures.

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