Three research projects housed within the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture have been awarded a total of $2.5 million in federal appropriations for FY 2010.

BioEnergy Production and Carbon Sequestration, a project of UT AgResearch, was awarded $1 million for scientists to continue their efforts to understand and improve the sequestration of carbon in plants, particularly energy crops, and to develop feedstock for biofuel production.

Plants are dependent on CO2 and sunlight for photosynthesis and growth, but some plant species are more efficient at converting CO2 into biomass than others. Determining how and where carbon is stored in plants will help scientists improve plant biomass production for energy while retaining maximum carbon levels in the soil. Elevated accumulations of CO2 are linked to models predicting global weather changes and sequestration of carbon to reduce atmospheric CO2 is a growing national research imperative.

The funding will also contribute to the state’s ongoing effort to develop technology for the production, harvesting, and transportation of energy plants, particularly switchgrass, for biofuel production. Faculty from the Department of Plant Sciences, the Department of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science as well as the Office of Bioenergy Programs are expected to collaborate on the effort.

The UT Agriculture Policy Analysis Center has estimated that the economic impact of a biomass-to-energy industry would include a total of up to 7,000 new jobs added to the Tennessee economy alone, with improved economic activity throughout the U.S. as the industry develops throughout the nation. A pilot-scale biorefinery under construction in Vonore, Tenn., is expected to begin producing cellulosic ethanol by the end of the year. The biorefinery is a cooperative venture between DuPont/Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol and the University of Tennessee.

The project “Phytosensors for Crop Security and Precision Agriculture” was also awarded $1 million. This project combines state-of-the art technologies in biotechnology and photonics to produce crop plants that can be used as early-warning sentinels for the detection of plant disease. Disease could occur naturally or intentionally if disease agents were deliberately released as in the case of an agricultural terrorism scenario. In either case an early warning system would be invaluable for protecting our food supply. If farmers know about an outbreak of a disease before symptoms show, then crops can be treated and rescued with minimal economic losses. This is not presently possible, but UT Institute of Agriculture scientists are among the world’s leaders in using biotechnology to produce plants that could be used to monitor the environment on a large scale. The project is led by Neal Stewart, a professor of plant sciences who holds the Racheff Chair of Excellence in Plant Molecular Genetics.

Scientists in Stewart’s lab are genetically modifying plants to emit a unique spectral signature in early stages of infection, that is they would “change color” before a farmer would normally detect other signs of infection. Special photonic sensors may be needed to detect subtle changes in color. The plants could be planted on a grid along with the other crops to monitor plant disease in real time. In addition to plant diseases, precision agriculture phytosensors for the monitoring of field fertility and water stress will also be developed to aid in environmental stewardship of natural resources and economic farm management. The technology could fundamentally change the way crop health is monitored and protected.

An additional $500,000 in funding was awarded to a team of faculty in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology for “Improving Hemlock Health in Tennessee.” This project involves research to enhance the development and implementation of management of Hemlock Woolly Adelgid. Because the trees die within three to six years following infestation, research on effective and environmentally friendly management strategies is urgently needed to preserve and protect hemlocks. This project also involves expanding plans to breed natural predators of the Hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA), an exotic invasive species that is decimating native populations of the majestic Eastern Hemlock. The project aims to stifle the negative ecologic and economic impacts that would result from the demise of the Hemlock species. For example, the loss of Eastern Hemlock could reduce tourism in the region around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park by an estimated 10 percent or $139 million.

At UT’s Lindsay Young Beneficial Insects Laboratory (LYBIL), natural predators that feed on HWA are mass-produced to control the pest. These beetles and other biological controls offer the only safe, sustainable suppression of HWA. Since 2003, nearly 500,000 predaceous beetles reared at LYBIL have been released on public lands in Tennessee, primarily in the GSMNP and the Cherokee National Forest. The establishment of biological controls is vital for the long- term survival of the hemlocks. Jerome Grant, Paris Lambdin, Pat Parkman and Carl Jones were instrumental in developing the proposal, but additional faculty and UT Extension personnel are expected to participate in the effort.

UTIA Vice-President Joseph DiPietro expressed gratitude for the cooperation of the Tennessee Congressional representatives who helped sponsor the funding. “We always appreciate the support that our representatives show for our scientists’ initiatives which are aimed at improving the quality of life in Tennessee and the nation,” he said.

Senator Lamar Alexander, Congressman Lincoln Davis and Congressman John J. (Jimmy) Duncan, Jr., all helped to garner support for the projects.