A researcher at West Virginia University is unearthing what facilitates the robust growth of Miscanthus grass, a bioenergy crop that grows well on reclaimed Appalachian mine lands and holds the potential to produce fuel and capture carbon dioxide.
Little is known about what makes the crop so effective, so Jennifer Kane, a plant and soil sciences postdoctoral scholar at the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, is studying how microbes — like bacteria and fungi — interact with Miscanthus roots to boost the plant’s productivity and sustainability.
Funded with a $219,000 grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Kane is working with mentors Ember Morrissey and Edward Brzostek who is with the Department of Biology. Kane, a Lester native, will measure the roots, study their chemistry and activity, and connect that data with what’s happening aboveground. Evaluating the system holistically may help researchers understand what conditions enable the plant to prosper.
“We’re trying to connect what’s happening really close to the roots to what’s happening in the whole system,” Kane said. “Some of our results showed that certain root traits —like how many roots are there and what their physical structure is, and even what their tissue chemistry is — explains some of the things we’re seeing in the soil microbiome.”
As Miscanthus photosynthesizes, it brings in carbon from the atmosphere and deposits it underground, where microbes take it up. The microbes, in turn, unlock nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil, which the plant could not otherwise access. This trade can occur on or in the roots. Kane said evidence suggests the most active interaction occurs where the roots touch the soil, an area known as the rhizosphere.
“The plant can do some interesting things to manipulate microbes,” Kane said. “For example, they can produce more roots that have more surface area to interact with more microbes. Or they may exude more carbon from aboveground to encourage microbes to release nutrients. So, this dynamic thing is happening, where plants are changing their roots in different ways to get more out of the microbial relationship.”
While Miscanthus doesn’t require fertilizer to flourish, the researchers have been applying different types to plots in the field to study the results. These include both a chemical fertilizer treatment and an organic one made from daimanure. Next, they’ll collect root and soil samples to analyze the fertilizers’ effects on the soil-carbon cycle.
“We’re wondering if that will disrupt these interactions and change how the plants try to get nutrients from the soil and the microbes,” Kane said. “If we just give it to them freely, will they still invest in these relationships with microbes?”
Miscanthus is a good choice for the study, as it takes well to Appalachia’s climate and is robust to common soil challenges. In addition to its fast-growing nature, it withstands the harsh conditions mining may cause on the landscape. Kane is studying sample plots at the WVU Agronomy Farm as well as the Animal Science Farm. The two sites have unique soil characteristics and represent various types of terrain found in Appalachia; the former is a steep slope while the latter sits adjacent to surface mining and has been undermined itself.
Researchers have found that growing miscanthus improves soil conditions.
“We see nutrients and organic matter coming back to the soil, and we think that has a lot to do with this relationship between Miscanthus and the soil microbiome,” Kane said. “Over time, it builds favorable soil characteristics. This all feeds back to the idea that in the long run, with the right infrastructure, we could have this crop on these mine lands and, at minimum, restore some good soil characteristics. But maybe in the future, we’ll be able to use these plants to feed into the economy.”
In addition to the benefits below ground, Miscanthus’ quick growth produces large amounts of biomass with relatively minimal greenhouse gasses, which are released during cultivation, and researchers envision it as a renewable, carbon-negative source of bioenergy.
Morrissey said she believes Kane is an emerging leader in her field. The funding agency, NIFA, is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Jen is an ideal recipient for the USDA postdoctoral fellowship program because she is a productive and creative young scientist who cares deeply about agricultural sustainability,” Morrissey said. “As a Fellow, she will be able to simultaneously research fundamental questions about plant-microbe interactions and gain information to optimize bioenergy crop production on marginal lands in Appalachia.”
Brzostek added that Kane’s research has the potential to transform the understanding of how Miscanthus roots operate, how they engineer microbes in the soil, and how they can grow on infertile soils like abandoned mine lands.
For Kane, the importance of the research hits home.
“I grew up seeing the way Appalachia has been affected by mining,” she said of her youth in Raleigh County. “To see some of these lands not only improve, but potentially going back into a more sustainable energy purpose would be a full circle moment.”