Modified Switchgrass Has No Negative Effect on Soils

Genetically engineered switchgrass does not change soil chemistry, microbiology, or carbon storage potential.

Test field plot of switchgrass. Cultivation of perennial switchgrass increases soil organic carbon.

The Science

Overcoming the natural resistance of plant cell walls to deconstruction, known as recalcitrance, is a major bottleneck to cost-effective biofuel production. In response, scientists modified lignin. Lignin is one of the polymers responsible for recalcitrance and crucial for structural support within plant tissues. Modifying lignin improved the conversion of plant biomass to fuel. Yet a question remained. Will specifically modified bioenergy crops negatively impact the local soil? In field studies, researchers confirmed that growing genetically manipulated switchgrass as no negative effects on soils over the short terms studied (2 to 5 years).

The Impact

Cultivating genetically modified bioenergy crops over large areas could greatly improve biofuel production. However, little is known about the impact such crops could have on soil health relative to native plants. This study sought to characterize these impacts. The team evaluated physical, chemical, and biological parameters of soil health over several years during field trials of engineered switchgrass. The study found no significant effects.


Scientists at the BioEnergy Science Center (BESC) genetically modified switchgrass, a promising bioenergy crop, to produce less lignin resulting in an improved ethanol conversion process. However, the longer-term impact of lignin-reduced switchgrass on soils in terms of its physical, chemical, and microbiological attributes was unknown. An analysis comparing lignin-altered lines of switchgrass against non-altered switchgrass (controls) showed no detectable effect on soil chemistry, with no significant changes to soil pH or 19 other measured major elements. The soil microbiome, important to the fate of nutrients and carbon, exhibited seasonal differences between the altered and control crops, but overall there was no significant difference. Furthermore, the rate of carbon sequestration, the production and storage of carbon in the soil, occurred at rates similar to the positive rates in control plots with unaltered switchgrass.


BER Program Manager
Kent Peters, Ph.D.
Biological Systems Sciences Division
Office of Biological and Environmental Research
Office of Science
Department of Energy

Principal Investigator
Jennifer DeBruyn
University of Tennessee, Knoxville


This work was funded by the Southeastern Region Sun Grant Program at the University of Tennessee. The research was enabled by the BioEnergy Science Center, which is a Department of Energy (DOE) Bioenergy Research Center supported by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research in the DOE Office of Science.


J. DeBruyn, D. Bevard, M. Essington, J. McKnight, S. Schaeffer, H. Baxter, M. Mazarei, D. Mann, R. Dixon, F. Chen, C. Zhuo, Z. Wang, and C. Stewart Jr., “Field-grown transgenic switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.) with altered lignin does not affect soil chemistry, microbiology, and carbon storage potential.” Global Change Biology Bioenergy 9(6), 1100 (2017). [DOI: 10.1111/gcbb.12407]

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Program: BER , BSSD , BRCs

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