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Tropical & Dryland Biofuels, Size Matters

Posted by | August 1, 2012

On the Matter of Size

WSU entomologist Laura Corley Lavine
WSU entomologist Laura Corley Lavine

In the animal kingdom, huge weapons such as elk antlers or ornaments like peacock feathers are sexy. Their extreme size attracts potential mates and warns away lesser rivals.

Now researchers led by scientists at the University of Montana and Washington State University have discovered a developmental mechanism they think may be responsible for the excessive growth of threatening horns or come-hither tail feathers. Published in the July 26 online edition of Science, the research reveals a mechanism to explain both the size of these traits, and the incredible variation among males of the same species – why some beetles, for instance, grow massive horns while their fellows grow nothing but nubbins.

“Our research explains how these enormous traits get to be so enormous,” said Doug Emlen, a professor and evolutionary biologist in UM’s Division of Biological Sciences. “People have known for 100 years that the best males produce the biggest structures, but nobody has really understood how. Our work looks under the hood to explain why so many sexually selected structures get so massive.”

The researchers discovered when they disturbed the insulin-signaling pathway in Japanese rhinoceros beetles – big insects that can grow horns two-thirds the length of their bodies – the horns were far less likely to grow. In fact, horn growth was stunted eight times as much as growth of the wings, or the rest of the body. They interpret this to mean that the exaggerated structures – the horns – are more sensitive to signaling through this physiological pathway than are other traits.

“If you have a lot of food, you have a lot of insulin,” said Laura Corley Lavine, a Washington State University entomologist and co-principle investigator with Emlen. “You respond to that by making a really giant, exaggerated horn. Then the female can tell she wants to mate with you because you are truthfully advertising your condition.”

Read the rest of this artice by Eric Sorensen online at http://bit.ly/N7nryR and watch a video featuring Lavine explaining the research at http://bit.ly/M6amoD.

Camelina Production Fact Sheet

Camelina is growing on dryland farmers because of its value as fuel and food source.
Camelina is growing on dryland farmers because of its value as fuel and food source.

Camelina is garnering increased interest as a dryland oilseed crop due to its cold and drought tolerance and its unique fatty acid profile, which could make it useful for both industrial and nutritional purposes. WSU Extension has released a fact sheet, Camelina Production in the Dryland Pacific Northwest, to educate farmers who are considering growing this member of the mustard family. The publication is the collective effort of WSU and USDA researchers Scot Hulbert, Stephen Guy, William Pan, William Schillinger, Tim Paulitz, and Karen Sowers of and Don Wysocki of the Oregon State University.

The camelina production publication discusses current uses, planting dates and methods, weed control, insect and disease control, fertilization, harvest, and expected yields. Uses of camelina range from biodiesel and jet fuel to chicken and cattle feed. Camelina has lower fertilizer, water, and pesticide requirements compared to other crops currently used to make fuel.

Camelina Production in the Dryland Pacific Northwest, a 5-page electronic publication, is available as a free download from http://bit.ly/Mhn8nV. For a video of a Washington farmer who grows camelina for fuel and feed, see http://bit.ly/LwprUO. WSU Extension’s complete catalog of numbered publications can be viewed at http://pubs.wsu.edu/.

Harvesting Tropical Biofuel Feed Stock

Sugarcane harvesters such as this one will be part of a project to manage tropical grass crops as biofuel. WSU’s Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems will lead the project’s mechanical harvest systems work. Photo courtesy of Qin Zhang/WSU.
Sugarcane harvesters such as this one will be part of a project to manage tropical grass crops as biofuel. WSU’s Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems will lead the project’s mechanical harvest systems work. Photo courtesy of Qin Zhang/WSU.

WSU’s Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems is teaming up with University of Hawai’i at Mānoa and others to modify existing sugarcane harvesting techniques and systems to handle tropical grass crops for biofuel. The work is part of UH-Mānoa’s four-year, $6 million project to help Hawai’i increase its energy security by growing sustainable biofuel feedstocks. The project is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. WSU CPAAS will lead the mechanical harvest systems component, funded at $709,000.

“Participating in this project will further reinforce WSU’s strong competence in biofuel research,” said Qin Zhang, WSU CPAAS director. “By filling the gap in engineering solutions for feedstock production, we’re helping to make WSU one of the leading institutes in biofuel research in the world.”

According to UH-Mānoa, the project will examine the use of fast-growing tropical grasses such as bana grass, sweet sorghum, energy cane (a relative of sugarcane) and Napier grass-pearl millet crosses for biofuel production. Researchers will also assess the sustainability of renewable-energy production in Hawaii, which uses imported fossil fuels to meet more than 90 percent of its energy requirements.

Despite almost-nonexistent heating needs, Hawaii has the nation’s highest energy costs. The U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Department of Energy’s statistical and analytical agency, notes that per capita energy consumption in Hawaii is among the lowest in the nation. But the transportation sector leads energy demand in Hawaii, accounting for more than half of the state’s total energy consumption. This is due in large part to heavy jet-fuel use by military installations and commercial airlines.

WSU CPAAS is working with researchers from Oregon State University; ZeaChem Inc. of Lakewood, Colo., a developer of biorefineries to convert renewable feedstocks into sustainable fuels and chemicals; Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Co. on the island of Maui, Hawaii’s largest provider of raw sugar; and Hawai’i BioEnergy LLC of Honolulu, a leading renewable-energy supplier to the Hawaiian Electric Co.

Read the rest of this story by Nella Letizia on WSU’s ag news website at http://bit.ly/PgpkbR.