September 15, 08
Giant 21 Foot Tall Sunflowers Studied for Use in Cellulosic Ethanol

University of Georgia researcher Steve Knapp wants to turn the sunflower into the preferred energy crop of the future.

Knapp is researching the plant, attempting to isolate the genetic material that cause the plant to produce woody stems and grow in areas of extreme drought. His research may make the sunflower a viable fuel crop for Georgia.

Over the next few years, the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences professor and Georgia Research Alliance eminent scholar plans to tap into the genetic diversity of wild sunflowers. In the process, he will help other genomic scholars sequence the entire sunflower genome.

“Genomics will provide resources and information useful in solving problems of agricultural and economic importance,” Knapp said. “Disease resistance, drought tolerance, seed quality, biomass yield as well as ornamental traits will be mapped.”

There are 49 native species of sunflower, and 20 of those are genetically connected to the common sunflower. “There is a vast reservoir of diversity,” Knapp said.

Worldwide, sunflowers are farmed on more than 60 million acres. Most are used for oil production and to make biodiesel. The plant could be used to produce another alternative fuel -- ethanol.

Knapp will study the silverleaf and Algodones dune sunflowers. Both are wild, desert-dwelling species. Growing as tall as 21 feet with woody stems, the plants can produce large amounts of cellulosic biomass, which can be converted into ethanol. Their small blooms smell like chocolate, too.

But taming a wild species into a domesticated crop that farmers in Georgia or other places can grow economically for fuel or other products can take time. The fastest way to do it is to understand the genes.

“First, we need to figure out where the genes are we want to keep, then we introduce them into the modern sunflower,” Knapp said.

The sunflower has 17 chromosomes, each containing approximately 2,900 genes. In total, Knapp estimated the sunflower has 40,000 to 50,000 genes. The human genome has 35,000 genes.