Fox and Ralph awarded DOE grant to characterize gene function in bioenergy crop plants

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has announced $178 million for bioenergy research to advance sustainable technology breakthroughs that can improve public health, help address climate change, improve food and agricultural production, and create more resilient supply chains. This funding supports cutting-edge biotechnology R&D on bioenergy crops, industrial microorganisms and microbiomes.

Brian FoxRecipients of the biotechnology award include UW–Madison Biotechnology Training Program director and biochemistry professor Brian Fox and biochemistry professor John Ralph. Their research aims to uncover important information about how BAHD acyltransferases and acyl-CoA ligases — enzymes that control the composition of plant cell walls — behave in vitro and in plants.

“This work will help us understand how plants produce a large variety of products that have potential for use in a sustainable bioeconomy,” Fox says.

John Ralph

Results will help inform targeted modification of plant metabolic properties, particularly for bioenergy crops such as poplar, sorghum and switchgrass, the researchers say. Their work will allow production of easily extractable, energy-rich aromatics in bioenergy plants as well as the discovery and validation of additional enzymes and products that may contribute to increased drought tolerance, reduced insect feeding, and resistance to fungi and microbes.

“Producing cheaper energy from organic materials – like plants, food and waste – keeps money in the pockets of energy consumers and prevents carbon pollution from reaching the atmosphere,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm in a DOE press release. “These projects will continue to advance the boundaries of biotechnology and support the emergence of a thriving U.S. bioeconomy that creates good-paying jobs and helps us meet our climate goals.”

The Fox Lab specializes in applying synthetic biology techniques to discover new enzymes that can transform plant materials for use as biofuels. Ralph’s group is world-renowned for its work on lignin biosynthesis, including delineation of pathways of monolignol synthesis, lignin chemistry, and lignin reactions. Ralph and University of British Columbia forestry professor Shawn Mansfield are co-PIs on the grant.