GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Researchers from Michigan State University believe they have taken a step toward cracking the source of another biofuel crop.

The study, which was published in this month’s edition of Frontiers in Plant Science, focuses on switchgrass. It’s a common perennial plant that grows across much of the United States, including in Michigan. Like corn and sugarcane, it could be a key source of ethanol. However, unlike other plants, switchgrass slows down its photosynthesis process during the summer.

Post-doctoral researcher Mauricio Tejera-Nieves, who led the field work on the study along with his advisor, Berkley Walker, explained that photosynthesis is what makes the plant produce sugars and grow, so that summer slowdown limits the amount of ethanol switchgrass will generate.

Tejera-Nieves and the MSU team were able to determine that switchgrass slows down its photosynthesis process simply because it doesn’t need it.

“Imagine getting a call from your bank and they tell you, ‘Hey, your account is full. You can take a vacation, go on sabbatical, do whatever you want. Just stop working because we’re not storing any more money,” Tejera-Nieves said in an MSU blog post. “It’s a conservative strategy, but it’s one that works for switchgrass. The longer it’s doing photosynthesis in nature, the more likely it is that an animal will eat it or something else bad will happen.”

Tejera-Nieves said going into the study, he hypothesized that rain totals factored into the photosynthesis slowdown but found that the data didn’t support that claim.

Michigan State University post-doctoral researcher Mauricio Tejera-Nieves conducts fieldwork at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station in Hickory Corners. (Courtesy Mauricio Tejera-Nieves/MSUToday)

“That’s when we put in these rainfall exclusion shelters that blocked the rain and we didn’t see large differences,” he told News 8. “Water still plays a role, but there is another part of this decline that could not be explained by this limitation.”

Tejera-Nieves said the long-term goal is to see if switchgrass can be grown into a viable biofuel source, but the next step in their research is to find that mechanism that slows down photosynthesis within the switchgrass.

“What’s the biology behind this? … Because once we have this mechanism, we can trick the mechanism (into creating more ethanol),” he said.

While switchgrass may never be a major ethanol producer like corn or sugarcane, he believes the plant can still serve a big purpose and their switchgrass research could prove handy when investigating other potential biofuels.

“We could use corn, but if you use corn, then you’re getting into the dilemma of food vs. fuel. You could use corn for other things that are not necessarily producing ethanol. So that’s one point,” Tejera-Nieves said. “We also want switchgrass because its perennial and being perennial and having perennial crops in the landscape, that brings biomass that can go to ethanol or other biofuels, but it also brings a lot of environmental benefits to that landscape. It provides wildlife habitat, reduces erosion, continues soil cover and sequesters a lot of carbon.”