Plants Vs. Dinosaurs: Which Will Light Our Future?

By Emily M Greeson, PhD 

Biofuel Lights the Future is an exhibit that explores current climate change research and how Midwestern prairie grass, also called switchgrass, can help reduce carbon emissions. Coal, oil, and natural gas are all fossil fuels which formed deep in the Earth over 500 million years from dead plants and animals, such as dinosaurs. Is switchgrass-based biofuel an alternative to fossil fuels? Maxwell Oerther, Ovya Venkat, Jinho Lee, and Alexandra Kravchenko are the minds behind Biofuel Lights the Future, which is featured within the MSU Museum CoLab Studio’s 1.5° Celsius exhibition. This group studies plant and soil science at MSU and brings a unique perspective to the exhibition. I was excited to interview the team and dig deeper into their work.

EG: What was your motivation to create an exhibit and pursue the 1.5° Celsius open call? 

Team: We believe that scientists should actively communicate with the public to let them know discoveries from academia. Since the research that we do is directly related to climate change, we were strongly motivated to join the 1.5° Celsius exhibition. We hope that people know more about the role of soils and biofuel crops as an option for a better future.

EG: What was your favorite part of creating the exhibit? 

Team: Our favorite part was creating a cylindrical model, illustrating the carbon sequestration process in which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and stored in the soil carbon pool. We made a lot of endeavors to simply explain and visualize for the public this very complex process by communicating with several artists. We also learned a lot along the way!

EG: What do you hope visitors to the CoLab Studio take away from Biofuel Lights the Future

Team: We hope visitors from the CoLab Studio recognize the benefit of the soils and soil carbon sequestration via bioenergy crops. Our exhibit has a nice model illustrating how soil can store atmospheric carbon dioxide through the crops. On the wall of Biofuel Lights the Future are six shadow box dioramas depicting fossil fuels from dinosaurs as a nonrenewable resource that puts carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and biofuels from plants as a renewable process that can pull carbon from the atmospheric carbon dioxide and store it in the soil. Another piece of the exhibit is a three-dimensional heat map showing the amount of carbon emissions overlayed on the lower 48 United States. To connect this to biofuels, cylinders with soil and Midwestern prairie grass were added to the map with the column height corresponding to the amount of plants for biofuel needed to offset the current carbon emissions.

EG: Can you explain a little bit about the process of making and using biofuels?

Team: Through photosynthesis, plants take up atmospheric carbon dioxide to use as the building blocks for roots and leaves. And the plants are harvested and used to create bioethanol and biodiesel through fermentation and transesterification of cellulosic biomass. This creates a cycle of carbon, where the carbon dioxide emitted by burning biofuels is used by the next generation of bioenergy crops to grow.

EG: In other words, plants need the element carbon for energy to grow and they can get that carbon from carbon dioxide, a common gas in the atmosphere. Then the plants can be harvested and used to create fuels, called biofuels. So, the carbon cycle is from biofuels to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to plants and back to biofuels making this a renewable process.

Team: Yes, that is the carbon cycle for biofuels.

EG: What future directions into biofuel research are you excited to see unfold?

Team: In addition to the research for the cost-efficient production of bioenergy crops and fuels, a number of researchers are working hard to chase multiple rabbits at once. Effects of plant perenniality and biodiversity on the soil carbon storage are where our research group is interested in.

EG: So, your group is interested in seeing if different communities of plants instead of a lot of the same plant affects how they take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in the soil?

Team: Yes, we are currently looking into carbon’s role in diverse plant communities including legumes, grasses, and flowering plants, to name a few. You can think of a prairie versus a field of one grass as a simple comparison.

Will dinosaur fossil fuels keep lighting our future? Or will plants win out before we reach 1.5° Celsius? With the help of these scientists and others like them, plants have got a fighting chance. If you want to learn more about this group’s research at MSU check out their lab’s website (


Portrait of Emily M Greeson, PhD. About the Author: Emily earned her PhD from Michigan State University in Microbiology & Molecular Genetics where she focused on synthetic biology and biomedical engineering. Other areas of interest include transdisciplinary research and science education, communication, and outreach.

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