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EPSCoR funding playing vital role in OSU biofuels research

Consider it the basis of the coming biobased economy: Build a better plant and strengthen local communities, thereby improving the quality of life for residents.

The ultimate goal is to create renewable energy from high-yield, high-quality plants that can help meet the world’s needs in economically viable and environmentally sound ways, said Yanqi Wu, a plant breeder with Oklahoma State University’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources.

“It’s a simple concept, but the science needed to realize the goal can be quite involved,” said Wu, a faculty member in the department of plant and soil sciences, whose biofuels research got a boost in November thanks to new funding provided through the Oklahoma Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research.

EPSCoR is on tap to receive $20 million from the National Science Foundation and Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education at a rate of $4 million annually, renewable for the next five years.

The EPSCoR funding supports a collaborative project led by OSU’s Ray Huhnke, director of the division’s Biobased Products and Energy Center; Lance Lobban, director of the University of Oklahoma’s School of Chemical, Biological and Materials Engineering; and Kirankumar Mysore, a professor at the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation.

“A high percentage of our OSU involvement will be Dr. Wu and his group,” Huhnke said. “Yanqi will be working with scientists across the university community to enhance development in both yield and quality of switchgrass.”

Wu and his fellow collaborating scientists will be studying DNA to identify genomic regions responsible for the major components of biomass switchgrass. They will also examine the gene expression profiles associated with switchgrass development and the makeup of plant structure as it relates to biomass yield. A third major factor will focus on plant stress resistance, a key to protecting biomass yield potential.

“Dr. Ranmanjulu Sunkar’s work with small RNA’s is extremely exciting and cutting edge,” Wu said. “Small RNA’s are important because they regulate plant gene expression. The ability to effectively utilize small RNA activities is a relatively new field of research, and is the foundation of enhancing scientific understanding necessary to ultimately produce improved varieties of plants.”

Wu, Sunkar and Ramamurthy Mahalingam, who like Sunkar is a member of the OSU department of biochemistry and molecular biology, in essence will be creating cost-effective feedstocks that then can be converted by microbial and chemical processes to produce desired products such as biofuels.

Huhnke will be working closely with the University of Oklahoma to make use of the scientific and technical advances discovered and developed by the research teams led by Wu, Sunkar and Mahalingam.

As part of its research focus, the EPSCoR funding will provide the division and OSU with opportunities to hire new faculty, post-doctoral scientists, research engineers and graduate and undergraduate students.

“Think of the EPSCoR funding as growing Oklahoma’s intellectual capacity in the field of plant development and conversion technologies,” Huhnke said. “This is an important component of attracting industry to the state. Our cellulosic ethanol research is already well known throughout the nation. This will solidify Oklahoma’s status as a leader in the use of state resources to develop liquid fuels and other forms of energy.”

Oklahoma is one of only four states that have 10 or more distinct eco-systems. This has helped foster the division’s vision about what it will truly take to create a sustainable, renewable energy system.

Plants that might work best in one part of the state will not necessarily be the best choice for biofuels feedstock in another part of Oklahoma; the same holds true on the national scale, where it might make more economic and environmental sense for states or regions to favor certain feedstocks over others, said Clarence Watson, associate director of the division’s statewide Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station system.

“Our vision of a decentralized system has received a great deal of interest from U.S. government officials as they look at developing a national renewable energy policy,” he said. “Key elements of the science that will help create a viable biobased economy are going on right now, right here in Oklahoma, and the EPSCoR funding is playing a vital role.”

The division is comprised of the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences and two state agencies: the Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station, with 17 research stations situated across the state, and Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, working side-by-side with local residents through county, area, district and state offices serving all 77 counties in Oklahoma.

“Our land-grant mission is to tackle issues and concerns of importance to Oklahoma, and the activities associated with the EPSCoR grant are a good example of some of the ways in which we take science-based discoveries and turn them into practical programs that benefit the public,” Watson said.

The grant allows for summer technology academies, mobile science vehicles and teacher-training workshops aimed at exposing students and teachers from kindergarten classes through high school to cutting-edge science related to bioenergy.

At the collegiate level, the funds support undergraduate student research experiences in academia and industry, which will promote increased awareness about bioenergy and stimulate the recruitment of talented next-generation problem-solvers into graduate-level programs.

“A statewide cyber-infrastructure consortium will be established,” Huhnke said. “Conferences to encourage multi-disciplinary, multi-campus collaborations will be supported, which should also enhance faculty competitiveness in securing future grants.”

An entrepreneurial workshop, a business plan competition for students and vouchers to assess the commercial potential of researchers’ inventions also are on tap, each of which will help foster the spirit of creativity and entrepreneurship vital to creating a sustainable biobased economy.

Huhnke said the educational initiatives not only strengthen Oklahoma’s business capacity, they also promote the inclusion of historically underrepresented groups through collaboration with 1890 land-grant institutions and tribal colleges.

“The EPSCoR funds will enhance our ability to facilitate the transition of students from high school to college, provide culture-attuned counseling support and promote programs aimed at retaining students pursuing science, technology, engineering and math disciplines,” he said.

Other initiatives will promote the effective communication of biofuels-related advances in order to enhance public awareness about the value of science.

Watson adds it is important to remember that science moves at it own pace; researchers do not just snap their fingers and immediately come up with the solution to a concern or issue.

“It’s only because visionary scientists, engineers and agricultural economists at OSU and some of our peer institutions began studying biomass-based energy and the economic, environmental and social implications of a biobased economy back in the early 1990s that the United States today is close as it is to a sustainable biobased energy system,” he said.

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