Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Oklahoma State University Targets Switch Grass for Alternative Fuels

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Oklahoma State University Targets Switch Grass for Alternative Fuels

Article excerpt

A researcher at Oklahoma State University is probing the inner workings of switch grass for biofuel production, and at the same time learning how to benefit major food crops like corn.

Switch grass is the focus as a source of biofuel production in the U.S. because it thrives in wastelands while tolerating extreme weather conditions like drought and extreme heat, said Raman Sunkar, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Oklahoma State University.

Sunkar is receiving research grants from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology, said Steve Paris, OCAST public information officer.

"Switch grass is something we can grow in Oklahoma as a commercially viable product," Paris said.

The University of Oklahoma is also conducting switch grass research. The university operates a 1,000-acre test farm near Guymon in the state's Panhandle, Paris said.

Sunkar's research team is beginning to find answers to questions about the role of microRNAs in the biomass production and adaptation to stress conditions of switch grass. Funding for the research is provided by Oklahoma's National Science Foundation Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research.

Scientists are targeting switch grass for biofuels for three reasons, Sunkar said.

"First: It is not part of the human diet, so no competition between food and fuel," he said.

Corn-based biofuel creates a conflict between food and fuel, driving corn prices up globally, he added.

"Second: Switch grass can be grown on marginal soils or wastelands, which does not require much of fertilizer application," Sunkar said. "Third, it is tolerant of drought as well as heat episodes."

The key is the proteins, which are the building blocks of all living cells, he said.

"Proteins dictate the type of cell, its function and the timing of its death - all are determined by which proteins are produced in the cell and at what quantities and time they are produced," Sunkar said.

As proteins are the end product of a complex process, they begin with the genetic code present in DNA. The relevant parts of the DNA called "genes" are copied into something called the messenger RNA, or microRNA. …

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