HudsonAlpha On Team Awarded 5-year, $68M Biofuels Grant

Several research groups at HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology are passionate about producing crops that can be used as fuel to create clean and sustainable energy for our planet.

And now, with the help of a newly awarded Department of Energy grant, they can move one step closer to this goal.

The grant is part of a DOE project that will provide $68 million in funding over five years for basic research aimed at making more productive and resilient crops that can be used to produce fuel, called biofuel. Material from these crops, referred to as biomass, can be harvested and converted into liquid biofuels for use in transportation, or as energy for heat and electricity. Biofuel represents an important alternative to fossil fuels because it is a renewable, sustainable, and carbon-neutral source.

Faculty Investigator Jeremy Schmutz of HudsonAlpha is on a team of researchers from across the United States working for more than a decade to genetically characterize and improve the biomass production of switchgrass. The collaborative research team is led by Dr. Thomas Juenger of the University of Texas. Dr. Kankshita Swaminathan of HudsonAlpha brings her team’s expertise in plant gene editing to the project.

One of the most exciting aspects of our project is the diverse research perspectives on the team – a group that includes ecologists, evolutionary biologists, genomic and data scientists, microbial ecologists, physiologists and plant breeders,” Juenger said. “The broad perspectives provided by the team have been critical for developing creative solutions to improving switchgrass.”

Switchgrass grows in much of North America and is commonly used for livestock feed and erosion control. Switchgrass is a promising biofuel candidate because its deep roots that allow it to access nutrients easily from a variety of soils, and it has a higher tolerance for extreme water conditions, such as drought or prolonged periods of rain.

There are several varieties of switchgrass based upon the climate and their environment. For example, the southern lowland switchgrasses are tall and thick-stemmed, while the northern upland switchgrasses are short and thin-stemmed.

For biofuel production, tall and hearty switchgrass is desirable to produce the most biomass per plant. The research groups aim to produce a variety of switchgrass that is high-producing like the southern plants but has cold tolerance like the northern plants.

By breeding switchgrass that can thrive across different climates, the research group hopes to create a biofuel crop that is not only sustainable and clean but can also be grown on lands that are not traditionally useful for growing food. The ability of a biofuel crop to grow on otherwise uninhabitable land is important in the quest to increase biofuel crop production without jeopardizing commercial farming.

Planting switchgrass in common gardens at 10 sites across the United States allows the research group to study how genetics and the environment interact. This helps the researchers determine the genes or genetic changes responsible for desirable switchgrass traits. Such traits include high biomass production, cold tolerance, sustainability, and a high success rate of plant establishment from seeds.

“We hope to be able to solve long standing issues with switchgrass crop improvement by applying our large-scale genomic efforts,” Schmutz said. “Improved switchgrass varieties will bring greater cold tolerance and increased yield for biofuel feedstocks for this highly sustainable perennial crop.”

The group will identify genes that confer these key traits in switchgrass and use Swaminathan’s expertise in targeted editing and plant breeding to make varieties of switchgrass that will produce the most biomass yet will survive in colder climates.

“Over the last decade, this team has used the latest technology in genomics to explore the effect of genetics and environment in switchgrass and have identified genes that likely influence many desirable traits,” said Swaminathan. “It is a really exciting time to test these hypotheses using recent advances in plant biotechnology and genome editing.

“This will allow us to explore the precise function of genes of interest and help inform directed breeding for more resilient, high yielding plants.”

 

 

HudsonAlpha Study Reveals Similarities Between Wild, Domesticated Cotton

Plant genomics researchers at HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology announce the surprising results of a cotton sequencing study led by Dr. Jane Grimwood and Jeremy Schmutz, who co-direct the HudsonAlpha Genome Sequencing Center. The goal of the project was to identify differences among wild and domesticated cotton that could be used to bring back traits like disease or drought resistance. The results, however, surprised the researchers and led them to unexpected conclusions, as described in their paper in Nature Genetics.

Dr. Jane Grimwood

“The importance of this study is that it helps us understand more about cotton fiber development,” said Grimwood, who is a faculty investigator at HudsonAlpha. “But perhaps more importantly, it reinforces the surprising concept that wild and domesticated cotton is remarkably similar, leading us to the conclusion that we will need to work on other approaches to generate diversity for cotton species.”

For the study, the group sequenced and pieced together the complete genomes of five different species of cotton – both wild and domesticated – for comparison. Their genomic analysis showed that two ancestral diploid cotton genomes came together to form what is basically the modern tetraploid cotton between 1 and 1.6 million years ago.

“When we compared the wild cotton plants to domesticated cotton, we expected to see that the wild traits had been lost,” said Schmutz, a faculty investigator at HudsonAlpha. “What you typically see with these crops is that all the selection has gone into improving production, potentially at the cost of losing beneficial genetic material from the wild species.”

What they found, however, surprised them.

The wild and domesticated genomes, it turns out, were incredibly similar.

Jeremy Schmutz

“There’s less diversity between what are supposed to be different species of cotton than between two humans or even within different cells in a single human body,” Schmutz said.

This lack of diversity means that researchers won’t be able to as easily reach back into the wild cotton gene pool to introduce lost traits such disease resistance back into cultivated cotton plants.

“We can’t only rely on the gene pool to make changes to cotton as a crop because those wild genes don’t exist. The only real way forward is really going to be targeted genome editing,” Schmutz said.

Even though the group was surprised to find so much similarity among the cotton genomes, they did find some useful variation. Wild cotton, for instance, has some more genetic disease resistance triggers than cultivated cotton varieties, which tend to be more vulnerable.

“This is the basis from which we can start to compare what else we can do with existing cotton diversity,” Grimwood said. “Breeders have selected for ‘improved’ strains of cotton based on how the plants perform in the field, but they don’t necessarily have a full understanding of the changes they are making on the genetic side. With this new information, they can really look at what their selections are doing on a genetic level.”

Even though the project results were unexpected, the entire team is confident that the newly assembled cotton genomes will lead to direct benefits for cotton producers and the cotton industry.

Don Jones, the director of Agricultural Research at the nonprofit Cotton Inc., said these reference grade assemblies are significant advancements for improving the sustainability of cotton production.

“The results described in this Nature Genetics publication will facilitate deeper understanding of cotton biology and lead to higher yield and improved fiber while reducing input costs. Growers, the textile industry, and consumers will derive benefit from this high impact science for years to come,” Jones said.

This work is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Cotton Inc.

In addition to the HudsonAlpha team, the publication included researchers from 12 other institutions: the University of Texas; Nanjing (China) Agricultural University; Texas A&M University the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Raleigh, N.C., and Stoneville, Miss.; Zhejiang A&F University in Lin’an, China; Clemson University; Iowa State University; the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, Calif.; Mississippi State University; Alcorn State University; and Cotton Inc. in Cary, N.C.

HudsonAlpha Researchers Work to Improve Cotton Through Genetics

Is there anything more Huntsville than the combination of cotton and technology?

To that end, researchers at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology have set out to make a better cotton through a series of research collaborations, grants and projects. These grants include sequencing “elite” cotton strains, sending cotton to space and conversations between students and astronauts.

Genetics could transform the ways cotton and its uses are considered.

Scientists are studying colored cotton straight from the plant, which would reduce the environmental footprint of dye use. Fire retardant cotton would come with major implications for consumer safety.

Cotton might even be bred with natural antimicrobial compounds, which could revolutionize the medical industry by providing hospitals with linens and bandages that have antibacterial properties.

With such visions, it’s easy to see why researchers have focused in on cotton for genetically guided improvement. A series of grants will allow HudsonAlpha researchers at the HudsonAlpha Genome Sequencing Center (HGSC) to develop the cotton of tomorrow.

One project HudsonAlpha scientists with the HudsonAlpha Genome Sequencing Center will work on has them sending cotton to space. The idea is that cultivating cotton in zero gravity may alter the genetics or epigenetics of transformation, giving scientists a comparison to cotton cultivated on earth.

The HGSC provides high-quality whole genome sequencing and analysis in agriculture, having created more than half of all the high-quality reference genomes in circulation.

The project team, led by Jeremy Schmutz, will sequence the earth-grown samples and the samples that return from space, searching for differences on the genetic level. The effort is part of a collaboration with Dr. Christopher A. Saski of Clemson University, funded by Target and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS).

However, it’s not the only cotton-based project on the radar for the HGSC.

HudsonAlpha researchers are setting out to make a better cotton through a series of research collaborations, grants and projects.

Schmutz is also heading a project funded by Cotton Inc. that will compare elite cotton lines with a historical one. Breeders develop “elite lines” that they use as the basis for their crops, often because they are well adapted to the climate they’re grown in, particularly disease resistant or have some desirable traits.

By comparing elite lines to a historical cotton reference genome, researchers hope to unveil the parts of the cotton genome that make the elite lines so desirable, making them easier to replicate and improve.

As far as education is concerned, Dr. Neil Lamb, vice president of Educational Outreach, will lead a student experience for a diverse group of students from local high schools. The Educational Outreach team will cover the basics of epigenetics, information about cotton and the specific details of the research project.

Students will have an opportunity to ask questions of researchers from HudsonAlpha and Clemson.

Lamb is also working with NASA to explore the possibility of linking students to the astronauts on the International Space Station for a conversation about how the experiments are carried out in space.

 

 

Burgeoning Regional Economy Ensures Everyone a More Valuable Slice of the Pie

Envision Huntsville as an average size pie.

Standing at city center, look outward in all directions toward the far edges of the pie crust – north toward the state line where visitors from Tennessee get their first glimpse of the city. South where many Huntsville businesses draw daily commuters. East across the mountain, west from neighboring communities and all points in between.

For Huntsville and Madison city leaders, this vision of the pie’s edge does not represent boundaries but, instead, corridors of growth.

“That’s always been our vision for Huntsville’s future and the basis for our regional economic strategy,” said Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle. “The first part of revitalizing your city is to take the center point, known as the living room of your city, and revitalize it to make it economically viable. Get one area going and stretch it out to other areas.

“Year after year, we have pinpointed growth corridors that help us grow both economically and residentially. The result is an economic revival like what you have been seeing in Huntsville and Madison the past 10 years.”

Private investment land developers have that vision too. During the 1990s, brothers Jim and John Hays and their nephew Jeff Enfinger of Enfinger Development opened a growth corridor to the southeast in Hampton Cove and the Hays Nature Preserve.

In 2000, that development led to the expansion of a residential growth corridor along Taylor Lane in Big Cove, and, by 2010, it had extended into the Goldsmith-Schiffman community.

Also during the 1990s, Huntsville opened a residential growth corridor off Zierdt Road in the Edgewater and Mountain Brook communities southwest of the city. In 2010, it expanded into the Williams community further south.

Battle said that by looking at the local economy like a pie, you will see their strategy unfolding.

“Instead of dividing the pie into fifteen different pieces that get smaller the more users you add, we made the whole pie bigger so we could divide it up differently with more restaurants, entertainment and activity venues, more places to spend retail dollars,” he said. “With a bigger pie, each slice is more valuable.”

The Western Corridor

The Town Madison development along I-565 between Zierdt Road and Wall-Triana Highway in Madison will open a gateway to the city.

Anchored by the new Rocket City Trash Pandas baseball stadium, the development is surrounded by residential, retail, commercial, and entertainment components that have thrown open a west side growth corridor that never existed.

“The location off I-565 is perfect catchment for a broad audience across the Southeast,” said Madison Mayor Paul Finley. “As the interchanges off the highway are completed, you can expect ease of traffic getting to and from the area.

“If people come for a game or event, we hope they stay and experience all that Madison has to offer, including our historic downtown that offers livability with local boutique shopping and dining.”

Finley also believes Madison’s central geography in North Alabama positions it perfectly to feel the positive impact from economic development in the whole state as well as southern Tennessee.

“Madison benefits from Huntsville’s growth with the FBI and other tech development workforce to our east, as well as from the Mazda-Toyota plant to our west. We look to collaborate with Limestone, Morgan and Marshall counties,” said Finley.

The development is envisioned to become a regional destination.

“Right on the interstate, convenient if you are coming from Cullman or Decatur, and where everybody who passes by can see it,” said Joey Ceci, president of The Breland Companies, which is developing Town Madison and the new Clift Farm project on U.S. 72 in Madison. “We are creating a regional destination with baseball, a food hall, and resort style hotels, similar to, but more diverse than Chattanooga.”

Open Southern Border

Recently, Enfinger and his uncles who are also developing McMullen Cove, announced the development of a multi-use Hays Farm development in South Huntsville that will replace the old Haysland Square and turn a 500-plus acre swath of undeveloped land into a new growth corridor to the south that will draw retailers and residents from Airport Road south to the river and beyond.

“There will be a commercial center all the way up to the Enfinger Building on South Parkway with a Village of Providence-type entertainment district surrounded by a city park, a ballfield, and 500-acre Hays Green with a passive walking park,” said Enfinger. “We’d like to maintain the natural green spaces. The Hays Nature Preserve in Hampton Cove has been a regional draw for a lot of people.”

In many ways, Ceci believes that with population growth and so many people commuting here to work every day from other counties, we already have an active regional economy at work.

“You see workers buying groceries, going out to eat and shopping during the workweek, even if they live outside the city,” he said. “I think there is some pent-up demand for some of the development that is occurring.”

Max Grelier, co-founder of RCP Companies who has developed the AC Hotel as part of CityCentre and developing MidCity on the old Madison Square Mall property, has been watching those employee migration patterns into Huntsville for more than a decade.

“We see the regional trade area as about 50 miles and incorporates the 14-county commuter hubs from which Redstone Arsenal and Cummings Research Park draw its employment,” said Grelier. “As a result, Huntsville has become the region’s primary center for healthcare, civic, cultural, shopping, and dining activity.”

Annexation of Morgan & Limestone counties

Add to all this, the annexation of a small portion of Morgan County to the southwest and a huge chunk of Limestone County due west of city center, and you can see the pie expanding!

“Yes, this annexation is a game-changer because it results in the ability to get infrastructure to certain areas and thus create major employment opportunities,” said Charlie Sealy of Sealy Realty. His company has developed several residential properties including The Belk Hudson Lofts and The Avenue in downtown Huntsville, and is building a sister community, The Avenue Madison. “These new jobs will be an economic driver for the economy and create an incredible multiplier effect.”

The annexation is a precursor to the economic development that follows it, said Grelier.

“Annexing was necessary for the economic development of the Mazda-Toyota plant and other larger manufacturers,” he said. “It’s also helpful in attracting investment into commercial real estate projects across the metro area.”

“We’ve only made a foray into Morgan County,” said Battle, “The annexation of Limestone County where Mazda Toyota made a $2 billion land investment has seriously expanded our metro and opened an industrial growth corridor that is a win-win for both parties.”

City funds, thanks to Huntsville’s AAA credit rating from the S&P and Moody’s Investment Services, have pulled their share of the weight. With the power to borrow $85 million for city and countywide projects, of that, Huntsville will allot $25 million for the Mazda Toyota project infrastructure; and another $55 million for capital plans and schools.

Northern Exposure

Included is the revitalization of North Memorial Parkway. Since widening the well-worn highway into a viable parkway traffic corridor, it has encroached on many properties there, making them less viable.

“They don’t have enough depth to sustain retail, so we’ve taken them out and we’re turning that area into a park with greenways and walking trails,” said Battle. “Perception becomes reality.

“Instead of seeing boarded-up buildings when you enter from the north, you see it more as an entryway into North Huntsville – an economically viable area to move into and to be a part of.”

Among the projects is the upgrading of parks that will be instrumental in bringing in sports teams from all over the Southeast, including recreational rugby fields and soccer fields that can also be used for lacrosse.

“We are putting money into the tennis center and into the golf course, which now has cross-country running and mountain bike trails. All of these things tie back to what we call ‘quality of life’ for our residents and activities for our guests,” said Battle. “Travel sports bring people and their families to our area from all over, where they compete, stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, and shop in our stores.”

Quality of Life

Town Madison’s $12 million Pro Player Park project with 12 synthetic baseball/softball fields, the $22 million Huntsville Aquatic Center, and the expanding Huntsville Tennis Center are already national attractions for travel sports competitions and events.

“To have a viable and growing economy, we have to offer a ‘quality-of-life’ that attracts people to the area, and quite frankly, we have a lot of jobs on the table too,” Battle said. “To recruit highly-skilled, higher income workers requires a quality of life that is equal to or higher than where they are moving from.”

Battle said “quality-of-life” is found in Lowe Mill, in craft beer, in a vast array of recreation facilities, disc golf, pickleball, art museums and public parks.

“But we still have work to do because people are coming from around the world to work for companies like Blue Origin, Facebook, Aerojet Rocketdyne, and Mazda Toyotas,” said Battle.

Finley is ready for whatever challenges lay ahead for Madison.

“As Madison grows our focus is making sure we are responsible with our citizen’s tax dollars by improving infrastructure and providing a good quality of life in every district of our community,” said Finley. “While areas to the West are experiencing booming growth and increased traffic, we need to not only keep pace with growth but foresee areas that will need improvements down the line.”

Huntsville is also adding hotels, apartments, and homesites as more people move into the city. With a goal of adding 1,000 hotel rooms within walking distance of the Von Braun Center, Battle said it will help draw larger conventions and business meetings.

“Part of the strategy for building smaller hotels instead of one big convention center hotel is to prevent people from living inside the hotel the whole time they are here,” said the mayor. “We want people to experience our city, eat in our restaurants, visit our museums, and shop in our stores.”

Enfinger believes that as we become a more affluent society, people’s wants, and expectations become more demanding.

“It looks like we are evolving in unison with the rest of the country as far as the type shopping we do and the kind of developments we build,” said Enfinger. “Our growth rate is higher than most cities, but I think we follow a national trend in the type developments we can sustain.”

Private Investment is Leading the Way

Private investment must still lead the way and developers such as Breland, RCP, Sealy, and Enfinger are leading the charge.

“When the City can support infrastructure needs or improvements, private investment can take those dollars further,” said Mayor Finley. “This is a win/win for both the City and for the investors. Ultimately, our citizens also reap the benefits of this growth and development.”

“Buy-in is good so far, but much harder than it may seem,” said Grelier. “Huntsville has a great story to tell, but many larger institutional investors are not aware of it or view the market as too small.

“Our team spends most of our time discussing and selling the regional market rather than the immediate project. A big part of Huntsville’s growth moving forward will be how the region is branded to compete for private investment and workforce internationally. It’s a regional story that should include our sister communities.”

He would also like to see the Gen Y & Z workforce move to the area because it’s a cool, fun place to live, and then find a job once they get here rather than moving here for the great job.

“Once this trend reverses, larger private investment and more economic development will follow quickly,” Grelier said.

From the city’s perspective though, Huntsville’s first mixed-use/multi-purpose development at Twickenham Square in 2014 has been a driver in enlarging the pie.

Join us for Part 2 of our series on Huntsville’s growing regional economy in the September issue of the Huntsville Business Journal as we investigate how multi-purpose/mixed-use developments are helping build Huntsville’s regional economy.

 

HudsonAlpha Brings Power of Genomics to Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON – Along with research, education is a key element of the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology’s mission.

So, officials with the Huntsville-based center went on a mission to Capitol Hill last month and presented “Genomics in Agriculture 101: Exploring the Basics” in the Rayburn House Office Building. It was the third time HudsonAlpha held a “Genomics 101” session for lawmakers and their staff.

Members of Congress, their staff and House and Senate Committee staff members engaged with Jeremy Schmutz, faculty investigator and co-director of the HudsonAlpha Genome Sequencing Center; Dr. Kankshita Swaminathan, faculty investigator; and Dr. Neil Lamb, vice president for Educational Outreach, during the briefing.

The purpose for “Genomics in Agriculture 101” was to provide a forum for leaders in plant genomics to interact with the leaders who drive national policy, impacting agriculture for the United States and beyond.

“Enormous progress has been made in plant genomics in just a few short years. We have gone from generating a single reference genome for a single plant, to generating hundreds of reference plant genomes and detailed diversity of crop collections,” said Schmutz. “These advances are providing solutions to the many agricultural challenges faced by the farming community every day.

“Genomics 101 provided decision makers on national policy an opportunity to learn more about the reach and impact of genomics in agriculture.”

Some of the topics discussed at the briefing involved the power and utility of the information gained through genomics, specifically regarding improvement of crop yields; acceleration of breeding cycles; resistance to diseases and pests; reaction and resulting changes based as a result of drought or floods. Additionally, the group from HudsonAlpha stressed the importance of collaboration within the field of plant genomics.

Clift Farm: Breland Companies Bought the Farm That Jack Built

MADISON — In 1850, the population of rural Madison was less than 500 residents. Alabama farmers were producing nearly 565,000 bales of cotton and nearly 29 million bushels of corn a year.

John Henry Clift bought a small piece of rural farmland in what was then called Madison Station.

Since then, six generations of the Clift family have farmed that land for cotton, corn, soybeans, fresh fruits, and vegetables, mostly for local consumption.

Construction is underway on the Clift Farm development.

It was Jack Clift, known as Pawpaw to his many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, who moved home from Atlanta after World War II and took over the family farming business. Jack, who turned 100 years old in December, expanded the farm to more than 600 acres off U.S. 72 between Wall Triana Highway and Balch Road in Madison.

Several years ago, he sold off a sliver to developers who built the shopping plaza where Planet Fitness sits today.

Last fall, Jack officially sold the remaining 550 acres to The Breland Companies who, with his blessing, will develop it into a pedestrian-friendly residential community, park, and retail center.

The Breland development recently broke ground across the highway from the Target Shopping Center and Madison Hospital, but according to Joey Ceci, president of The Breland Companies, the development will in every way, honor and represent the Clift legacy.

“Jack has always been a conservationist at heart,” said Ceci. “His original vision for the land was to keep it agricultural, but he realized later in life that it was going to be sold. He wanted to be an active participant in the process and after much discussion with his family, he entrusted the development and preservation of his property to Louis Breland.”

“To understand this property, you need to understand the history of the Clift family and what faithful stewards Jack and Lillian Clift have been for this land,” said Breland. “I have ridden every inch of this property with Mr. Clift to understand its history and his vision for this wonderful piece of land.”

The goal is to create a community that will have a timeless feel, that will preserve many of the existing natural attributes, while providing retail, dining, residential, office space, multifamily homes, and medical opportunities.

“There is a lot of retail in that area already, but this one is different from those you are seeing at MidCity Huntsville and Town Madison, which will draw a regional audience,” said Ceci. “This one will be mostly residential and will have a relatively small, town center retail and restaurant component that supports the Clift Farm community.”

He said it will have a very real element of green space: a passive park area planted with wildflowers and fruit trees as opposed to soccer fields; a man-made pond surrounded by greenways, and a lot of walking trails. The residential component will consist of townhomes starting at $300,000 and homes ranging from $400,000 to $600,000.

In March, the Madison County Commission approved $8 million for Breland to spend on the development, to build roads and a utility infrastructure for the project.

“We have already done a little bit of groundbreaking, but we are currently building arterial roads and putting in that infrastructure,” said Ceci. “Breland is building a third lane into the property from (U.S.) 72 to alleviate the already heavy traffic in that area, and we have brought in traffic engineers to help us install a couple of red lights.”

An expanded farmers’ market is part of the Clift Farm development plan.

The front of the development along U.S. 72 will be retail and restaurants. The back will include three-story luxury apartments and townhomes with an overall pedestrian environment similar to Huntsville’s Village of Providence. Several out-parcels of land may be developed as medical office space, located conveniently across from Madison Hospital.

One of the most unique aspects of the project, according to Ceci, is that they carved out a modest plot of land on which Clift’s son and grandson will continue small-scale farming and they are building an enlarged farmers market where they will continue to sell fresh fruit and produce from the very land they continue to harvest.

“You have heard restaurants talk about farm-to-table ingredients? In this case, if you order a salad, you can almost sit there and watch the guys go pick it for you,” said Ceci.

Breland expects to begin selling residential lots possibly at the end of this year or early 2020. Some of the retail will likely open in April or May next year.