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URI Professor Turns on Biofuel 'Switch'

The research of a University of Rhode Island professor is paving the way for a future of biofuels and renewable energy on a local and national level.

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The research of a University of Rhode Island professor is paving the way for a future of biofuels and renewable energy on a local and national level.

The Department of Energy recently granted $1.5 million to fund the research of Professor Albert Kausch, the director of the URI Plant and Biotechnology Laboratory.

Kausch has been researching the genetics and usage of switchgrass for biofuels since 2004.

"We use genetic engineering in plants to analyze traits and introduce new traits," Kausch said. "We use DNA sequencing to look at the genome of these plants and understand more about its biology and how we can modify that specifically for traits that we want, such as biofuel."

According to Kausch, switchgrass is a native species of grass that once flourished in the tall grass prairies across North America. It can grow to a height of approximately 12 feet and was once seen all over the country.

"It produces more biomass per acre than any other perennial plant, which is why we would use it for biofuels," Kausch said. "It produces a lot of cellulose per acre."

Working in close collaboration with URI genetics professor Joel Chandlee and seven to 30 interns, Kausch can be found in his West Kingston laboratory any day of the week.

According to Kausch, 'innovation' sums up how interested people can become involved.

"I think in a crisis we innovate and that's where we are now, so I'm encouraged by what will happen as an outcome of this crisis," Kausch said. "Focusing on renewable energy is good for the environment, it's good for the economy, it's good for national security. I can't see a downside."

Given that the availability of oil is rapidly declining, biofuels offer a breath of hope for the future.

"There's a consumer problem and the public is interested in that, but there's also an availability problem," Kausch said. "I think that this current administration is doing a lot to draw attention from the general public and the voters about the responsibility of renewable fuels both to the environment as well as to our country."
At the moment, Kausch is working with Vekon Energies, a German company interested in introducing their technologies to North America.

"I'm trying right now to encourage them to be involved with the University of Rhode Island with the aspiration of trying to make URI independent of foreign oil," Kausch said.

He also teaches a credited internship program for undergraduates involved in his lab's research. His interns are required to have received a B or above in genetics and have the opportunity to get placed in high areas, whether graduate schools or for jobs.

"We're getting really good at this [research] and I expect that we will become stronger and stronger," Kausch said. "I think we've got a tremendous resource of people here and the support that we're getting from the DOE and some companies that are now interested in our research [suggest] that the future is bright."

After Kausch completed his undergraduate work at the State University of New York, he went on to receive a master's and a doctorate from Iowa State in cell and molecular biology.

Kausch uncovered what he considers to be one of his most prominent discoveries during his post-doctoral studies at the Rockefeller University, when he cloned DNA for the first time.

"We looked at how certain proteins enter the chloroplasts themselves and it turns out there's a protein fragment that guides it to a chloroplast rather than any other part in the cell," Kausch said. "That became important for a lot of different reasons."

In 1990, he was a member of the group responsible for the development of the first genetically modified corn plant. According to Kausch, more than 95 percent of corn in the United States is genetically engineered.

His other research pertains to the biofortification of Vitamin A, iron and other nutritional needs in African varieties of corn. The South American-based company CIAT, Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical, funds the maize project.

Kausch is the author of more than 47 published articles and patents ranging from drought-tolerant maize to magnetic beads capable of trapping proteins, cells, DNA and RNA.

"I also developed a new variety of garlic that grows like a green onion," Kausch said. "It's a little outside of what I normally do, but I couldn't resist. I made a company to develop that, Ophios, it's a small, little company."

Kausch has visited countries including China, Germany, Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Bulgaria. He also teaches Issues on Biotechnology at URI, a class that covers the basic aspects of life.

"It covers all of the applications in biotechnology, agricultural biotechnology, pharmaceutical biotechnology and new drug development and disease detection, medical biotechnology in stem cells and gene therapy, forensics, and bioweapons," Kausch said. "We pretty much cover everything."
Source: University of Rhode Island