It may be time for corn to take a back seat. This most widely used and cheapest source of ethanol could lose its top spot to miscanthus, a sun-loving, reedy grass that has the potential to become a go-to plant for biofuel, renewable chemicals, and carbon sequestration.
Nancy Reichert BS’79, a biology professor at Mississippi State University, and a team of researchers unlocked this perennial’s potential by editing miscanthus genes to knock out or change their function. This success opens the door to future advances. New genes that make further beneficial modifications can now be inserted at precise points in the miscanthus genome.
“There were a lot of head-banging moments that I didn’t know would happen. Science has a way of humbling you. I was humbled many times,” says Reichert, the past president of CAST, the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology. “But you chip away at it until you solve that problem. I never lost hope that it could be done.”
The perennial plant, which can grow 8 feet high each year, has long intrigued researchers. Easy to grow, adaptable, tolerant of drought and cold temperatures, miscanthus also thrives in poor soil. But there had been one big problem. Many states regard fertile miscanthus as a weed and have barred it from commercial use. Reichert’s gene-editing achievement has special significance — it marks the first time scientists have edited the genes of both the fertile and sterile species and lines of miscanthus.
“We’ve laid the groundwork for miscanthus to become a viable crop, probably in the next five to 10 years, because we can genetically improve sterile miscanthus, and dedicated plant breeders can also generate new lines of sterile miscanthus,” she says. “It can only make clones of itself through underground runners, called rhizomes, which are a lot easier to control than seeds that are so tiny you can never capture them.”
The research took place under the auspices of CABBI, the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation, a network of Department of Energy–funded research centers, where Reichert is a co-principal investigator at Mississippi State. UW has a similar federally funded endeavor, the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, housed at the Wisconsin Energy Institute and operated in partnership with Michigan State University.
Reichert has long marveled at the resilience of plants. “It’s so fascinating that they can survive, given everything that’s thrown at them,” she says. “In my research, we’re helping ourselves by generating ‘ideal’ biomass plants for production and harvest, and we’re helping the plants by introducing resistance to stresses or diseases that makes it easier for them to grow.”
Her miscanthus breakthrough builds on her earlier gene transfer research with kenaf, a close relative of cotton. “Decades ago, we tried using it to tap into the bioenergy market, but the market and processing infrastructure didn’t exist. Miscanthus came along, and I applied all the tools and methods on it that I used on kenaf,” says Reichert, who is also a fellow in the Society for In Vitro Biology. “Kenaf was so much easier to work with than miscanthus. The species, especially the sterile ones, are prima donnas and a pain in the butt to work with in the lab, but we persist.”
Reichert’s love of plants began as a child when she played in the forest at her grandparents’ 40-acre dairy farm near Manitowoc, Wisconsin. She had dreamed of becoming a nurse, like many of her female relatives, but that hope crumbled at UW due to her fear of needles. By chance, in 1976, she took a course called Elementary Bacteriology taught by Kenneth Todar, now senior lecturer emeritus.
“It was serendipity. It changed my life,” she recalls. “A lot of the techniques I learned in those labs at UW I still use to this day. I’m a confirmed lab rat. I enjoy the outdoors, but give me a lab, a lab coat, and the equipment I need, and I’m just a happy kid. I love working in labs. It’s the meticulous work that I really enjoy.”
More than 40 years later, John Kemp, then a professor of plant pathology at CALS, remembers how Reichert stood out. “When she was an undergraduate working in my lab, I recognized that she was really brilliant,” he says. “I’ve been very, very proud of her.”
Unable to find work after graduation in food quality control, Reichert’s career got an early boost when Kemp hired her to work as a lab technician at Agrigenetics Advanced Research Lab, a small start-up biotech company in Madison.
At the time, researchers were racing to perfect gene-transfer technology. Agrigenetics became the world’s first company to confirm that a gene taken from one plant could work in another plant that diverged from it evolutionarily millions of years ago.
“That was heavy stuff. It was absolutely amazing what we were able to accomplish,” says Reichert. Then, when Kemp took a post at New Mexico State University, Reichert went as well. She earned her Ph.D. in molecular biology there, and Kemp was her thesis advisor.
For eight of her 33 years at Mississippi State, Reichert chaired the biology department. Besides overseeing a $12 million building renovation, she helped secure $1.6 million in new donations and boosted the number of undergraduates declaring majors in the department by 200.
Of her career, she says, “It’s been one surprise after another. It’s been total serendipity. I never went out and said, ‘Hey, I’m gonna do this, and I’m gonna persist.’ Things have come to me. It’s just, like, wonderful chance. Then the hard work begins — to prove I’m worthy of it.”This article was posted in Bioenergy and Bioproducts, Changing Climate, Offshoots, Summer 2023 and tagged Bacteriology, Bioenergy, gene editing, John Kemp, Kenneth Todar, miscanthus, Nancy Reichert, plant pathology, the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation.