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Biotechnology for Biofuels

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Genetic engineering has been effective in altering cell walls for biofuel production in the bioenergy crop, switchgrass (Panicum virgatum). However, regulatory issues arising from gene flow may prevent commercialization of engineered switchgrass in the eastern United States where the species is native. Depending on its expression level, microRNA156 (miR156) can reduce, delay, or eliminate flowering, which may serve to decrease transgene flow. In this unique field study of transgenic switchgrass that was permitted to flower, two low (T14 and T35) and two medium (T27 and T37) miR156-overexpressing ‘Alamo’ lines with the transgene under the control of the constitutive maize (Zea mays) ubiquitin 1 promoter, along with nontransgenic control plants, were grown in eastern Tennessee over two seasons.


miR156 expression was positively associated with decreased and delayed flowering in switchgrass. Line T27 did not flower during the 2-year study. Line T37 did flower, but not all plants produced panicles. Flowering was delayed in T37, resulting in 70.6% fewer flowers than controls during the second field year with commensurate decreased seed yield: 1205 seeds per plant vs. 18,539 produced by each control. These results are notable given that line T37 produced equivalent vegetative aboveground biomass to the controls. miR156 transcript abundance of field-grown plants was congruent with greenhouse results. The five miR156 SQUAMOSA PROMOTER BINDING PROTEIN-LIKE (SPL) target genes had suppressed expression in one or more of the transgenic lines. Line T27, which had the highest miR156 overexpression, showed significant downregulation for all five SPL genes. On the contrary, line T35 had the lowest miR156 overexpression and had no significant change in any of the five SPL genes.


Because of the research field’s geographical features, this study was the first instance of any genetically engineered trait in switchgrass, in which experimental plants were allowed to flower in the field in the eastern U.S.; USDA-APHIS-BRS regulators allowed open flowering. We found that medium overexpression of miR156, e.g., line T37, resulted in delayed and reduced flowering accompanied by high biomass production. We propose that induced miR156 expression could be further developed as a transgenic switchgrass bioconfinement tool to enable eventual commercialization.


This article was published openly thanks to the University of Tennessee Open Publishing Support Fund.

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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