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Biomass research project to tackle climate change boosted by £2m investment

Miscanthus grass

Aberystwyth University scientists will be able to speed up the breeding of the perennial energy grass miscanthus, as part of a £37 million UK government package to boost biomass production.

Thanks to investment of more than £2 million through the UK Government’s Biomass Feedstocks Innovation Programme funded from the BEIS Net Zero Innovation Portfolio (NZIP), researchers will begin using a technique called genomic selection in the miscanthus breeding programme.

Miscanthus is a highly productive perennial grass that requires very low inputs and is being bred by scientists at Aberystwyth as a biomass crop. It produces 12-15 tonnes of biomass each year even when grown on land that is less suitable for food production. It is harvested in spring and the biomass currently sent to power stations to produce renewable electricity.

Biomass is seen as an important part of the UK Government’s plans to generate more homegrown power and generated 12.6% of total UK electricity in 2020.

Plant breeding is a process of crossing parent plants that have specific desirable traits in order to create offspring with improved traits. In the case of miscanthus, these traits include yield of biomass, ability to withstand drought and frost, and suitability for growing with low nutrient inputs.

Dr Kerrie Farrar from Aberystwyth University said:

“Miscanthus takes three years to mature in the UK, so using conventional breeding there is a long delay before we can select the most promising parents to cross. In Genomic selection, we first generate genetic markers across the miscanthus genome, and associate them with mature traits in a training population. We can then use the markers in our breeding population to select the plants predicted to show the best mature traits while they are only seedlings, thus speeding up the selection cycle from three years to one. This will help us to develop new high-yielding Miscanthus varieties to provide sustainable biomass to help tackle climate change.

“The carbon budget required for the UK to meet net zero carbon emissions has biomass energy with carbon capture and storage as a key component. Plants, especially fast-growing ones such as miscanthus, are currently the best way to remove carbon from the atmosphere as they take it up and fix it as they grow. Improved varieties can therefore contribute to the UK meeting its carbon budgets.

“Aberystwyth University scientists were part of the international effort to sequence the miscanthus genome, and it is exciting to be applying that to combatting climate change, whilst also benefitting growers and industry.”

Aberystwyth University are also going to be involved in hub site testing innovations from other projects within the biomass feedstocks innovation programme. In a project led by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, a range of innovations and biomass crops will be compared side by side at locations across the UK, including in Aberystwyth.

Professor Iain Donnison, Head of IBERS at Aberystwyth University, said:

“The biomass feedstocks innovation programme is testing a range of innovations, ranging from different types of plant, and different planting, agronomy and harvesting techniques. Testing these side by side is both important for our detailed understanding of each innovation, and also in order to be able to demonstrate them to farmers who are interested in diversifying their farming operations to include biomass crops. With the Government’s new biomass strategy due later this year, it’s a great time to be involved in showcasing the opportunities to farmers.”

Energy Minister Greg Hands said: “Accelerating home-grown renewables like biomass is a key part of ending our dependency on expensive and volatile fossil fuels.

“This £37 million of government investment will support innovation across the UK, boosting jobs whilst ensuring greater energy security for years to come.”