GLBRC's Sustainability Research Area


Focusing on one attribute comes at a high price.

At the GLBRC, sustainability researchers are exploring complex issues in agricultural and industrial systems. Research focuses on understanding the attributes and mechanisms responsible for the environmental sustainability of biofuel production systems, such as environmental impacts — many of which may be positive — and socioeconomic factors including incentives and policy options

Learn about the Center's research approach

Sustainability Leadership

Scientific Director, Sustainability Lead

A crop and soil scientist and ecosystem ecologist, Robertson focuses much of his research on the role that agriculture plays in greenhouse gas dynamics, and he is internationally known for his expertise in this area. Robertson has been the director...

Sustainability Lead

Jackson’s program focuses on structure and function of managed, semi-natural and natural grassland ecosystems. Research in Jackson’s grassland ecology lab spans many levels of ecological organization, from grass identification at the DNA level to landscape diversity effects on alternative biofuels...

Project Overview

A device used for measuring plant utilization of solar radiation sits in front of plots of switchgrass, corn and poplar growing in the Great Lake Bioenergy Research Center's fields at the Arlington Agricultural Research Station in Arlington, WI.GLBRC Sustainability research ranges from the microbial community level to regional modeling, and researchers conduct fieldwork at different project sites to reflect this diversity of scale. Small plots at Kellogg Biological Station in Michigan and the Arlington Agricultural Research Station in Wisconsin provide locations for measurement-intensive experiments, while investigators work in larger scale-up fields to collect data on carbon balances and biogeochemical processes. Finally, researchers pursue ecosystem-level biodiversity questions across landscapes, including marginal lands, in central Michigan and Wisconsin.

Specific sustainability projects include:

  • Novel biofuel production systems
  • Microbial-plant interactions for improved biofuel production
  • Biogeochemical responses
  • Biodiversity responses
  • Economic responses
  • Modeling, design and testing of drop-in fuels
  • Process synthesis and technoeconomic evaluation for biomass-to-fuels technologies.


Sustainability Publications

Degradation of lignin β-aryl ether units in Arabidopsis thaliana expressing LigD, LigF and LigG from Sphingomonas paucimobilis SYK-6

Ewelina Mnich; Ruben Vanholme; Paula Oyarce; Sarah Liu; Fachuang Lu; Geert Goeminne; Bodil Jørgensen; Mohammed S. Motawie; Wout Boerjan; John Ralph; Peter Ulvskov; Birger L. Møller; Nanna Bjarnholt; Jesper Harholt

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Lignin is a major polymer in the secondary plant cell wall and composed of hydrophobic interlinked hydroxyphenylpropanoid units. The presence of lignin hampers conversion of plant biomass into biofuels; plants with modified lignin are therefore being investigated for increased digestibility. The bacterium Sphingomonas paucimobilis produces lignin-degrading enzymes including LigD, LigF and LigG involved in cleaving the most abundant lignin interunit linkage, the beta-aryl ether bond. In this study, we expressed the LigD, LigF and LigG (LigDFG) genes in Arabidopsis thaliana to introduce postlignification modifications into the lignin structure. The three enzymes were targeted to the secretory pathway. Phenolic metabolite profiling and 2D HSQC NMR of the transgenic lines showed an increase in oxidized guaiacyl and syringyl units without concomitant increase in oxidized beta-aryl ether units, showing lignin bond cleavage. Saccharification yield increased significantly in transgenic lines expressing LigDFG, showing the applicability of our approach. Additional new information on substrate specificity of the LigDFG enzymes is also provided.

Techno-economic comparison of centralized versus decentralized biorefineries for two alkaline pretreatment processes

Ryan J. Stoklosa; Andrea del Pilar Orjuela; Leonardo da Costa Sousa; Nirmal Uppugundla; Daniel L. Williams; Bruce E. Dale; David B. Hodge; Venkatesh Balan

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In this work, corn stover subjected to ammonia fiber expansion (AFEX™)1 AFEX™, is a trademark of MBI International. 1 pretreatment or alkaline pre-extraction followed by hydrogen peroxide post-treatment (AHP pretreatment) were compared for their enzymatic hydrolysis yields over a range of solids loadings, enzymes loadings, and enzyme combinations. Process techno-economic models were compared for cellulosic ethanol production for a biorefinery that handles 2000 tons per day of corn stover employing a centralized biorefinery approach with AHP or a de-centralized AFEX pretreatment followed by biomass densification feeding a centralized biorefinery. A techno-economic analysis (TEA) of these scenarios shows that the AFEX process resulted in the highest capital investment but also has the lowest minimum ethanol selling price (MESP) at $2.09/gal, primarily due to good energy integration and an efficient ammonia recovery system. The economics of AHP could be made more competitive if oxidant loadings were reduced and the alkali and sugar losses were also decreased.

The terpene synthase gene family in Tripterygium wilfordii harbors a labdane-type diterpene synthase among the monoterpene synthase TPS-b subfamily

Nikolaj L. Hansen; Allison M. Heskes; Britta Hamberger; Carl E. Olsen; Björn M. Hallstrom; Johan Andersen-Ranberg; Björn Hamberger

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Tripterygium wilfordii (Celastraceae) is a medicinal plant with anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive properties. Identification of a vast array of unusual sesquiterpenoids, diterpenoids and triterpenoids in T. wilfordii has spurred investigations of their pharmacological properties. The tri-epoxide lactone triptolide was the first of many diterpenoids identified, attracting interest due to the spectrum of bioactivities. To probe the genetic underpinning of diterpenoid diversity, an expansion of the class II diterpene synthase (diTPS) family was recently identified in a leaf transcriptome. Following detection of triptolide and simple diterpene scaffolds in the root, we sequenced and mined the root transcriptome. This allowed identification of the root-specific complement of TPSs and an expansion in the class I diTPS family. Functional characterization of the class II diTPSs established their activities in the formation of four C-20 diphosphate intermediates, precursors of both generalized and specialized metabolism and a novel scaffold for Celastraceae. Functional pairs of the class I and II enzymes resulted in formation of three scaffolds, accounting for some of the terpenoid diversity found in T. wilfordii. Absence of activity forming abietane-type diterpenes encouraged further testing of TPSs outside the canonical class I diTPS family. TwTPS27, close relative of mono-TPSs, was found to couple with TwTPS9, converting normal-copalyl diphosphate to miltiradiene. The phylogenetic distance to established diTPSs indicates neo-functionalization of TwTPS27 into a diTPS, a function not previously observed in the TPS-b subfamily. This example of evolutionary convergence expands the functionality of TPSs in the TPS-b family and may contribute miltiradiene to the diterpenoids of T. wilfordii. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

14-3-3 protein mediates plant seed oil biosynthesis through interaction with AtWRI1

Wei Ma; Que Kong; Jenny J. Mantyla; Yang Yang; John B. Ohlrogge; C. Benning

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Plant 14-3-3 proteins are phosphopeptide-binding proteins, belonging to a large family of proteins involved in numerous physiological processes including primary metabolism, although knowledge about the function of 14-3-3s in plant lipid metabolism is sparse. WRINKLED1 (WRI1) is a key transcription factor that governs plant oil biosynthesis. At present, AtWRI1-interacting partners remain largely unknown. Here, we show that 14-3-3 proteins are able to interact with AtWRI1, both in yeast and plant cells. Transient co-expression of 14-3-3- and AtWRI1-encoding cDNAs led to increased oil biosynthesis in Nicotiana benthamiana leaves. Stable transgenic plants overproducing a 14-3-3 protein also displayed increased seed oil content. Co-production of a 14-3-3 protein with AtWRI1 enhanced the transcriptional activity of AtWRI1. The 14-3-3 protein was found to increase the stability of AtWRI1. A possible 14-3-3 binding motif was identified in one of the two AP2 domains of AtWRI1, which was also found to be critical for the interaction of AtWRI1 with an E3 ligase linker protein. Thus, we hypothesize a regulatory mechanism by which the binding of 14-3-3 to AtWRI1 interferes with the interaction of AtWRI1 and the E3 ligase, thereby protecting AtWRI1 from degradation. Taken together, our studies identified AtWRI1 as a client of 14-3-3 proteins and provide insights into a role of 14-3-3 in mediating plant oil biosynthesis. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

In silico whole genome sequencer and analyzer (iWGS): a computational pipeline to guide the design and analysis of de novo genome sequencing studies

Xioafan Zhou; David Peris; Jacek Kominek; Cletus P. Kurtzman; Chris T. Hittinger; Antonis Rokas

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The availability of genomes across the tree of life is highly biased toward vertebrates, pathogens, human disease models, and organisms with relatively small and simple genomes. Recent progress in genomics has enabled the de novo decoding of the genome of virtually any organism, greatly expanding its potential for understanding the biology and evolution of the full spectrum of biodiversity. The increasing diversity of sequencing technologies, assays, and de novo assembly algorithms have augmented the complexity of de novo genome sequencing projects in non-model organisms. To reduce the costs and challenges in de novo genome sequencing projects and streamline their experimental design and analysis, we developed iWGS (in silico Whole Genome Sequencer and Analyzer), an automated pipeline for guiding the choice of appropriate sequencing strategy and assembly protocols. iWGS seamlessly integrates the four key steps of a de novo genome sequencing project: data generation (through simulation), data quality control, de novo assembly, and assembly evaluation and validation. The last three steps can also be applied to the analysis of real data. iWGS is designed to enable the user to have great flexibility in testing the range of experimental designs available for genome sequencing projects, and supports all major sequencing technologies and popular assembly tools. Three case studies illustrate how iWGS can guide the design of de novo genome sequencing projects and evaluate the performance of a wide variety of user-specified sequencing strategies and assembly protocols on genomes of differing architectures. iWGS, along with a detailed documentation, is freely available at