Breakthrough research identifies grass species that will help achieve net zero emissions

miscanthus giganteus - elephant grass - growing in a field

The hardy Miscanthus grass could provide an alternative sustainable energy source and become a driving force towards achieving net zero carbon emissions - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The climate crisis and food security are two of the most pressing problems facing our planet, and researchers at Norwich Research Park have found a grass that has the potential to deliver green energy while not impacting on land that’s needed for food crops. 

The global challenge of feeding the ever-increasing world population is exacerbated when food crops are used for green energy production. But, according to new research conducted by scientists at the Earlham Institute, based on Norwich Research Park, specific grass species - identified for their resilience to harsh growing environments - could be used as an alternative sustainable energy source and become a driving force towards achieving net zero carbon emissions.  

The Earlham Institute’s research shows that the Miscanthus species of grasses can be grown on marginal land, which has little or no agricultural or industrial value and often has poor soil or other undesirable characteristics, due to their remarkable resilience and photosynthetic capacity (ability to grow) at low temperatures. 

Picture of Dr Jose De Vega, group leader at the Earlham Institute

Dr Jose De Vega, group leader at the Earlham Institute, has been researching how Miscanthus grass performs in conditions where there is insufficient or excessive water supply - Credit: Earlham Institute

Dr Jose De Vega, group leader at the Earlham Institute, said: “Successful plant breeding for ethanol and chemical production requires the ability to grow on marginal lands. Miscanthus grass is a commercial crop due to its high biomass productivity, resilience and ability to continue photosynthesis during the winter months. These qualities make it a particularly good candidate for growth on marginal land in the UK, where yields might otherwise be limited by scorching summers and wet winters.” 

Previous research had already established that Miscanthus could produce ethanol more efficiently per hectare than switchgrass and corn. However, one question hung over Miscanthus – how does it perform where conditions mean that there is insufficient or excessive water supply, such as flooding or summer heatwaves? 

The research team worked alongside The Agriculture and Food Development Authority (TEAGASC) in the Republic of Ireland and the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences in Wales to  compare the physiological and molecular responses among different Miscanthus species in both water-flooded and drought conditions. They found a significant biomass loss occurred under drought conditions in all species monitored but in flooded conditions, biomass yield was as good as or better than controlled conditions in all species. 

Dr De Vega said: “Discovering that Miscanthus thrives in flooded conditions is a real breakthrough. It means it can be grown successfully on marginal lands, saving money and space for farmers and lending a hand to our over-polluted environment by emitting CO2. We can now use genomic approaches to find a Miscanthus type that is better suited to growing in UK conditions so that it can become a commercially-sustainable alternative for marginal lands.”  

Antimicrobial susceptibility testing in petri dish

It's reported that 70pc of bacteria are resistant to at least one type of antibiotic drug - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Tackling antibiotic resistance so that we don’t succumb to commonplace infections 

Antibiotics are commonly used to treat a myriad of infections and conditions, but there is a very real danger that they are being used so much that the resistance built up in bacteria could render them useless in years to come.  

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This would be catastrophic and lead to a sharp increase in deaths from infections we now regard as commonplace, such as sepsis, making currently routine operations potentially dangerous. 

The situation has become so serious that researchers at Norwich Research Park are looking at how we can monitor, diagnose, understand and ultimately fightback against this global health concern.  

It’s forecast that by 2050 more deaths will be attributed to antibiotic resistance to common infections than any other cause. As a good indication of what’s to come, after cardiovascular disease, sepsis is already the world’s biggest killer. 

Most antibiotics are natural and are the product of bacterial evolution, which also drives antibiotic resistance. Researchers and scientists at Norwich Research Park are collaborating to better understand the rapid rise of antibiotic resistance.

Dr Matt Bawn, from the Earlham Institute

Dr Matt Bawn, from the Earlham Institute, is tackling antibiotic resistance in salmonella - Credit: Earlham Institute

Dr Matt Bawn, based at the Earlham Institute and Quadram Institute, is tackling antibiotic resistance in salmonella by combining big data and computational biology with single cell analysis. This will help to identify how antibiotic resistance arises in individual bacteria as well as within large populations. 

He explains: “People become complacent because they hear about the evolution of antimicrobial resistance. As soon as people hear the word ‘evolution’, they think it means a long time. But what we’ve already seen from our research on salmonella is that evolution in bacteria can be incredibly quick. 

“Unless something drastic happens, very soon, we’re going to enter an era where antibiotics no longer work for routine things, which means that people will die from normal infections, or things at the moment that we’re not considering as very serious. 

“Our work here at Norwich Research Park will hopefully come up with a solution that will halt or at least slow the evolution of antibiotic resistance, buying us time to develop new therapies for common infections and ailments.”