By Andy Evangelista
UC Davis plant sciences professor Jorge Dubcovsky looks for ways to improve the quality and nutritional value of wheat. California growers are grateful, and pasta, tortilla and bread lovers will be, too.
Robert Cattolica, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UC San Diego, heads a team of UC Davis and Berkeley researchers that is converting biomass waste streams into power and alternative biofuels. The new biofuels may help reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly in California.
Both scientists are recent recipients of UC Discovery Grants, which support innovative research with matching funds from UC and industry collaborators. From food and fuel to medicines and microprocessors, the grants hope to produce valuable products and technology that may help people in California and beyond for years to come.
This summer, UC awarded 27 Discovery Grants, totaling $5.8 million, to researchers at seven UC campuses. Industry partners will pitch in an additional $9.1 million.
"One of the goals of the Discovery Grant program is to accelerate the transfer of discoveries and technological advancements to California industry, so that the public benefits from the research as soon as possible," said Mary Croughan, executive director of the Research Grants Program Office at the UC Office of the President. "At the same time, we hope to build lasting relationships between UC researchers and industry partners to enhance the state's economy and address critical problems facing California."
Among the awarded projects this year are:
- A UC Berkeley project with PG&E, which will develop strategies to reduce the company's carbon emissions and develop a model that other utility companies can follow.
- A UC Irvine collaboration with Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research and Development to study novel drug targets for the treatment of schizophrenia.
- UCLA researchers are developing more reliable electronic circuits and systems for Internet networking and wireless communications.
- UC Riverside scientists will seek a new laboratory technique to more rapidly detect viruses and diseases that threaten the citrus industry.
- UCSF researchers will work with GE Healthcare on magnetic resonance imaging technology to better monitor and treat diseases such as brain tumors, multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis and prostate cancer.
Dubcovsky, who leads the UC Davis Wheat Breeding and Wheat Molecular Genetics Laboratories, will partner with the California Wheat Commission with his second Discovery Grant. The aim is not only to make wheat more hearty and nutritious, but also to maintain its long-term productivity and improve the market value of California wheat.
Dubcovsky is noted for identifying and introducing valuable genes into wheat varieties with molecular breeding techniques. He was part of a team that cloned a gene that increases protein, iron and zinc in wheat, which provides about 20 percent of all the calories people consume worldwide. This June, he reported studies that could lead to a strain of wheat that could better tolerate freezing temperatures.
With the help of a 2006 UC Discovery Grant, Dubcovsky identified genes that protect wheat from stripe rust, a disease that has caused severe crop losses in California and in other wheat-growing regions. The genes have been transferred into several California wheat varieties, providing stripe rust resistant option for growers throughout the state.
"Without programs like the UC Discovery Grant, this research and knowledge would never get out of the laboratory," said Dubcovsky. "Now, we can transfer and advance the research so it benefits growers and consumers."
Bread and pasta wheat are important crops for the California economy as they are grown on approximately 800,000 acres, providing an annual crop value of $300 million, which is then multiplied several times by the milling, baking, tortilla and pasta industries, said Dubcovsky.
With a new Discovery Grant, Dubcovsky will focus on improving the nutritional value of California pasta and bread wheat, including increasing the concentration of resistant starch in the grain. This could improve dietary fiber and perhaps even make eaters feel full and cut down on overall calorie intake. New research also hopes to increase the grain protein concentration in wheat and discover new high grain protein genes that can help breed better varieties of wheat.
"Constant research is needed to stay ahead of disease that may harm crops, and we need to keep up with consumer demands for new, better and more nutritious varieties," said Lawrence Hunn, chair of the California Wheat Commission. The commission, funded by wheat growers and, supports research to improve wheat quality and market development to provide growers with more outlets.
"Our partnership with UC researchers has always been critical to the viability of the wheat industry in California," said Hunn. "We look forward to this next phase of collaboration."
Making fuel from waste
Not far from Davis, in Woodland, is the product of another UC Discovery Grant: a new prototype research facility that can convert five tons of forest, urban or agricultural waste to up to 500 gallons of alternative liquid transportation fuels.
The plant, owned by UC partner West Biofuels, was built using technology developed in collaboration with engineers at UC San Diego, Berkeley and Davis. It employs a process called "thermochemical gasification," which uses steam, sand and catalysts to convert wastes — many that end up in landfills — into biofuels. Cornstalks, almond shells, forest trimmings and even the solid waste from the local McDonald's could help power a vehicle or generate electricity, said UC San Diego's Cattolica, principal investigator of a Discovery Grant awarded four years ago.
More than 100 million tons of biomass is generated in California every year. "This technology will tap a huge, energy-rich resource that is now literally going to waste," said Cattolica.
The beauty of this biofuel is that when waste stream biomass material is used to produce ethanol, burning the fuel in internal combustion engines has almost zero net effect on the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, he said. On the other hand, burning fossil fuels continually adds carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere.
If the new technology proves successful and economical, West Biofuels could eventually build a commercial-size plant that could process up to 300 tons of biomass to produce 30,000 gallons of alcohol fuel a day. That's enough to fill more than three typical gasoline tanker trucks.
In the meantime, Cattolica and the other UC researchers have added new partners, including the California Energy Commission. At the Woodland Biomass Research Center, they will study fuel properties and productions processes to measure the plant's performance.
It is crucial research, as California is mandated to reduce its greenhouse gas emission from transportation fuels over the next few decades, while the jury is still out on the best ways to produce the necessary alternative biofuels. Some current methods, for example, use crops grown on valuable and vast acreage, which is costly in resources and dollars.
"We will offer an honest analysis of the feasibility of this process for the conversion of waste biomass to power and liquid transportation fuels," Cattolica said. "That's part of our role at UC — to assist industry in meeting California's energy needs with environmentally and economically sound technologies and to offer the best information to guide state policymakers."