U.S. Department of Energy


Date of this Version



GCB Bioenergy (2011) 3, 360–374; doi: 10.1111/j.1757-1707.2011.01093.x


Bioenergy production is driving modifications to native plant species for use as novel biofuel crops. Key aims are to increase crop growth rates and to enhance conversion efficiency by reducing biomass recalcitrance to digestion. However, selection for these biofuel-valuable traits has potential to compromise plant defenses and alter interactions with pests and pathogens. Insect-vectored plant viruses are of particular concern because perennial crops have potential to serve as virus reservoirs that influence regional disease dynamics. In this study, we examined relationships between growth rates and biomass recalcitrance in five switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) populations, ranging from near wild type to highly selected cultivars, in a common garden trial. We measured biomass accumulation rates and assayed foliage for acid detergent lignin, neutral detergent fiber, in vitro neutral detergent fiber digestibility and in vitro true dry matter digestibility. We then evaluated relationships between these traits and susceptibility to a widely distributed group of aphid-transmitted Poaceae viruses (Luteoviridae: Barley and cereal yellow dwarf viruses, B/CYDVs). Virus infection rates and prevalence were assayed with RT-PCR in the common garden, in greenhouse inoculation trials, and in previously established switchgrass stands across a 300-km transect in Michigan, USA. Aphid host preferences were quantified in a series of arena host choice tests with field-grown foliage. Contrary to expectations, biomass accumulation rates and foliar digestibility were not strongly linked in switchgrass populations we examined, and largely represented two different trait axes. Natural B/CYDV prevalence in established switchgrass stands ranged from 0% to 28%. In experiments, susceptibility varied notably among switchgrass populations and was more strongly predicted by potential biomass accumulation rates than by foliar digestibility; highly selected, productive cultivars were most virus susceptible and most preferred by aphids. Evaluation and mitigation of virus susceptibility of new biofuel crops is recommended to avert possible unintended consequences of biofuel production on regional pathogen dynamics.