Mosquitoes plagued Erik Sacks as he trudged through swamps, marshes and the like in Eastern Russia. After three weeks abroad, he arrived at the Seattle airport with four boxes. Almost two hundred clones were nestled inside two of the boxes, carefully wrapped in scraps of Russian newspapers.
Professor Erik Sacks amongst Miscanthus in Eastern Russia.
“I had this crazy idea,” said Sacks, an assistant professor of crop sciences.
As a member of the Energy Biosciences Institute, Sacks works with Miscanthus ×giganteus (M. ×giganteus), a large, perennial grass hybrid of diploid Miscanthus sinensis and tetraploid Miscanthus sacchariflorus.
The combination of diploid and tetraploid parents creates infertile triploid offspring, which prevents the hybrid from invading native areas.
In the 1930s, the hybrid was imported from Japan to Denmark, where it was widely distributed across Europe and the U.S. Today, it’s the only Miscanthus genotype available for bioenergy in the states.
“That’s a very risky proposition,” Sacks said. He, like many others, worries because without genetic diversity M. ×giganteus production is extremely vulnerable to pests and disease. With more and more acres being devoted to this popular bioenergy crop, it is increasingly important to develop new varieties of Miscanthus.
For Sacks, this was also an opportunity to create better-adapted cultivars to grow in temperate climates. “We knew from the botanical record that Miscanthus can be found in Eastern Russia,” Sacks said. “Obviously, those are some pretty cold climates.”
With support from the United States Department of Agriculture\Agricultural Research Service (USDA\ARS) Plant Exploration Program and in collaboration with Russia’s N. I. Vavilov Research Institute, Sacks and his colleagues planned a three-week expedition in September of 2012 to collect Miscanthus in Eastern Russia.
Karen Williams, Coordinator for the USDA\ARS Plant Exploration Program, played a key role in developing the collaboration with the Vavilov Institute. The expedition team included Doug Johnson from USDA\ARS, and Nikolay Dzyubenko, Elena Dzyubenko, Larisa Bagmet and Andrey Sabitov from the Vavilov Institute. The expedition’s drivers, Inga Kotlyarskaya and her husband Andrey, normally guide adventurous eco-tourists on trips to experience the beautiful wilderness of Eastern Russia.
The key to finding M. sinensis and M. sacchariflorus is knowing where to look. As a primary colonizer, Miscanthus likes disturbed areas. M. sacchariflorus generally grows in wet places near rivers and streams. M. sinensis usually prefers dryer areas and can be found on hillsides.
Prior to collecting, the expedition team identified five zones to explore, including the southern tip of Sakhalin Island off the coast of Russia, land surrounding the Amur river, and the area between Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, Russia. To Sacks, this area was reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest, with forested mountains and snaking rivers.
It would take about 10 hours to drive from the top of the northernmost zone to the bottom of the most southern zone. The collection area spanned four hardiness zones, the equivalent of traveling from Urbana-Champaign (hardiness zone 6) to the Minnesota border (hardiness zone 3).
In September, Champaign’s average high temperature is close to 80 degrees Fahrenheit while it is about 65 degrees in Khabarobsk. During Sacks’ visit, it was unseasonably warm and wet.
“A big typhoon came through and dumped a lot of rain our way,” Sacks said. “We couldn’t collect at some places because we would need a boat. Some roads were washed out so we had to stop and turn around.”
With water came the mosquitos.
“The mosquitos were absolutely, incredibly bad,” Sacks said. “Eventually they found their way underneath my netting. Apparently, this was the most important piece of equipment that I brought with me.”
Despite the muck and mosquitos, Sacks and his expedition team collected 181 Miscanthus clones (mostly M. sacchariflorus) along roads and rivers, in cultivated fields, on clear-cutted land, at the edges of forests, and other places.
“Some of them were tall, some were short, some had very thick stems, some thin,” Sacks said. “It’s hard to parse out what’s genetics and what’s environment, but once we grow them in a common garden, we will be able to see if these differences are genetic or environmental. I suspect we have collected a fair bit of genetic variability.”
They counted the number of stems per half meter squared, measured the plants’ height and stem diameter, gathered seed, collected herbarium specimens, dug up rhizomes, and recorded GPS coordinates—and pressed mosquitos for good measure.
“We also thoroughly cleaned the rhizomes with toothbrushes and buckets of water because soil from overseas is not allowed in the U.S.,” Sacks said. “Then we packed them in moist newspaper and placed them in Ziploc bags with labels.”
They made three sets of everything—one for Russia, one for the USDA\ARS, and a backup set that would be sent to a collaborator in Denmark.
Once Sacks returned to the United States, the boxes of clones and seeds were shipped to the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s National Plant Germplasm Quarantine Center in Maryland and the duplicate set of clones were forwarded on to Denmark for safekeeping. The first specimens to complete the quarantine process were released to Sacks this August. They will be incorporated into the USDA\ARS National Plant Germplasm System, where they will also be available to other scientists for research purposes.
Next, Sacks plans to use molecular markers to understand whether these collections are from one population or several different populations. The answer will help him figure out how to go about creating new hybrids of Miscanthus and even sugarcane, a close relative of Miscanthus. Maybe these new hybrids will be extra cold tolerant.
Maybe they will have new resistance to diseases and pests. Maybe they will tolerate waterlogging. Maybe they will help us create a better fuel alternative.
“We can dream of all these things—they are not out of the realm of possibility,” Sacks said. “There is a lot to explore, and this collection will be available for people to do that exploration over time.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2013 Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology newsletter.