In Michigan, Michigan State University has earned a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to better understand how biofuel crops acquire nitrogen, insights that could help maximize yields while minimizing fertilizer use.
The team will conduct the study at six sites in Michigan and Wisconsin. Along with growing plots of switchgrass and miscanthus, both fertilized and unfertilized, the scientists also will study a blend of five species of native grasses and a mix of 18 species of prairie plants. The idea is to test whether biofuels grow better in a mixed-plant setting or on their own, and whether these lands could be used to provide other ecosystem services, like increased biodiversity or habitat restoration.
In these different systems, the team will focus on how biofuel crops interact with microbes to obtain nitrogen. Recent studies suggest that switchgrass barters with soil bacteria and fungi to obtain its nitrogen. Through their roots, plants give microbes carbon they need and microbes fix nitrogen, taking it from the atmosphere and giving it to plants.