An international expert in plant biotechnology is joining Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) to develop a proof of concept for drought-resistant bioenergy crops. The strategic partnership is designed to advance crop resilience and could increase the use of renewable fuels.
Sagadevan Mundree, director of the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Centre for Agriculture and the Bioeconomy, begins his five-year joint appointment at PNNL on July 1. He will work as a senior scientist in PNNL’s Environmental Molecular Science Division of the Earth and Biological Sciences Directorate.
Mundree has more than 25 years of research experience studying how to enhance stress tolerance in plants to develop both resilient food crops and bioenergy crops. He has an extensive background in working with organisms known as extremophiles, which can survive in high-temperature and highly acidic environments.
At PNNL, Mundree will work with scientists to develop approaches for plant productivities and nutrient acquisition to guarantee economic feasibility of bioenergy crops and to improve our understanding of the role of plant–microbe interactions in drought tolerance and stress resistance.
The research will include using a sustainable source of biomass feedstock like switchgrass or sweet sorghum that can be processed and used to produce fuels and renewable energy.
“By increasing the stress tolerance of the plant, we could move bioenergy crops away from prime areas for growing food crops and start to use small, marginal land,” Mundree said. “We have identified some unique strategies of the native Australian resurrection grass which grows in the outback and can tolerate extreme environmental stress. This plant uses a number of strategies that we could use in our work, and we can advance our understanding of these through the PNNL technology platform.”
Mundree is the second joint appointment between QUT and PNNL. In 2017, PNNL microbiologist Alexander Beliaev joined QUT to help develop new technologies that generate bioenergy and bioproducts from renewable biomass feedstocks. Beliaev supports QUT's research in areas including synthetic biology, microbial biotechnology, and hydrogen production.It has led to outcomes that included an understanding of the genomes and microbiomes behind resurrection grass drought tolerance, as well as biological approaches to value add to agricultural wastes, create fuel cells, and for water cleanup.