Plant cells, like these in wheat, are surrounded by thick walls where energy is locked up. (Rowan Mitchell/Rothamsted Research)
Researchers with the UK's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Sustainable Bioenergy Center (BSBEC) have discovered a family of genes that could help breed grasses with improved properties for bioenergy.

The research was carried out by a team from the University of Cambridge and Rothamsted Research, which receives strategic funding from BBSRC.

The genes are important in the development of the fibrous, woody parts of grasses, like rice and wheat. The team hopes that by understanding how these genes work, they might be able to breed varieties of crops whose straw requires less energy-intensive processing in order to produce biofuels.

Most of the energy stored in plants is contained within the woody parts, and billions of tons of this material are produced by global agriculture each year in growing grass crops, but this energy is tightly locked away and hard to get at. This research could offer the possibility of multi-use crops where the grain could be used for food and feed and the straw used to produce energy efficiently.