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Research Q & A: Katrien Devos

Michael Terrazas

Katrien Devos is Distinguished Research Professor with joint appointments in the University of Georgia’s departments of Crop & Soil Sciences and Plant Biology in the College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences (CAES) and Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, respectively. Specializing in plant genetics, she also is a member of CAES’ Institute of Plant Breeding, Genetics & Genomics.

In this interview, she discusses her research into Panicum virgatum, a species native to North America commonly known as switchgrass, and the big role it could play in a more sustainable future.

Describe your work as it relates to biofuel production.

Our goal is to develop the perfect feedstock ideotype for bioenergy production. The feedstock, which is the starting material, could be a range of different materials. I work on switchgrass, which was selected [as a bioenergy crop] in the 1990s by the Department of Energy because it is high yielding, native to the U.S. and has high water-use efficiency and drought tolerance.

To develop the perfect ideotype, we need to understand the underlying genetics of traits that pertain to bioenergy production. Biomass yield is the foremost trait, but we’re also looking at composition, whether you have more sugars, more lignin, S/G lignin ratio, cell wall composition and so on—anything that has a direct or indirect effect on biomass yield and composition and, hence, fuel production.

UGA is heavily involved in the DOE-funded Center for Bioenergy Innovation (CBI) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. What is your role?

I’m the lead for the Sustainable Switchgrass Domestication Team. One of my roles is to make sure there is close collaboration, coordination and synergy between the 12 team principal investigators, based at six institutions. For example, we have field trials in Georgia at the Iron Horse Farm in Watkinsville and the UGA Gibbs farm in Tifton, as well as at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville with the same switchgrass populations. We want to make sure we measure the same traits in very similar ways so we can combine the datasets to look at environmental effects.

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Image: Distinguished Research Professor Katrien Devos (Photo by Peter Frey)

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