Rust on balsam fir

A homegrown bioenergy industry could bring new life to abandoned farmland and pastures across New York State. Up to 1.7 million acres of land are available for bioenergy feedstock cultivation, according to “Renewable Fuels Roadmap,” a 2010 New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) report 

AVF Researchers Identify Damaging Biomass Crop Pathogens

November 12, 2013

Rust on balsam fir

A homegrown bioenergy industry could bring new life to abandoned farmland and pastures across New York State. Up to 1.7 million acres of land are available for bioenergy feedstock cultivation, according to “Renewable Fuels Roadmap,” a 2010 New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) report. A major obstacle to successful bioenergy commercialization is leaf rust, caused by a group of damaging fungi that attack the region’s two major biofuel crops, shrub willow and switchgrass.

Cornell researchers recently identified the rust pathogens afflicting biofuel feedstocks, a key step toward breeding rust-resistant varieties. After DNA analyses of nearly 200 samples collected throughout New York, ACSF Faculty Fellow George Hudler (PLPA) and research associate Shawn Kenaley found three distinct species of leaf rust fungi on shrub willow and established that a single species of rust poses the main risk to switchgrass. Their research, funded by a 2011 Academic Venture Fund award from the Atkinson Center, will allow plant breeders—including Faculty Fellow Lawrence Smart (HORT), a collaborator on the project—to select and develop new disease-resistant cultivars using genes specific to each rust species.

Understanding the genetic basis of rust resistance will promote more sustainable, economically viable bioenergy by reducing chemical management and improving crop yield. “Anticipating problems before they become unmanageable is vital in any new agricultural endeavor,” Hudler observed. “The knowledge we’ve gained about willow and switchgrass pathogens gives the breeding and selection program a big head start.”

Kenaley is the lead author on a paper about the group’s findings, forthcoming in the journal Fungal Biology. “Our results have clarified the muddled phylogenetic relationships and host preference of willow leaf rust fungi in this region,” Kenaley explained, “but we still have much to learn about the taxonomy and systematics of these species.” The researchers are seeking additional funding for a taxonomic assessment of willow leaf rust across North America.

The economic impact on New York State alone could be substantial. According to NYSERDA estimates, an expanded bioenergy industry promises to add between $464.34 million and $1.79 billion annually to New York’s gross domestic product.

Read more about shrub willows for bioenergy at Willowpedia, an online resource managed by Lawrence Smart.