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Biofuel Crops Could Become Superweeds

Special crops that are planted to be turned into ethanol?which work better than corn?could become a generation of invasive superweeds if we're not careful.

As the United States looks to crops as possible future sources of energy, researcher Robert N. Wiedenmann calls for caution, citing the possibility of some biofuel crops becoming invasive species. He says, "Most of the traits that are touted as great for biofuel crops?no known pests or diseases, rapid growth, high water-use efficiency?are red flags for invasion biologists."

Seemingly benign crops that have become invasive species have already occurred in the United States. Wiedenmann and his colleagues cite the case of Sorghum halepense, otherwise known as Johnson grass. Johnson grass was introduced as a forage grass and now has become an invasive weed in many states, causing up to $30 million annually in losses for cotton and soybean crops in just three states. One proposed biofuel crop, Miscanthus, can grow up to eight feet in six weeks. Wiedenmann describes it as "Johnson grass on steroids."

Although invasive species are traditionally thought of as introduced species, a native species also can become invasive through alterations to the environment, Wiedenmann said. One example: the removal of oak and chestnut trees along much of the east coast has led to sugar maples becoming invasive in some areas.

After 911, it was discovered that the CIA and FBI were not able to communicate. There?s the same communication problem when it comes to specially-engineered plants. Wiedenmann gives one example: some scientists are developing a plant that will absorb heavy metals out of the soil and atmosphere at the same time that another group of scientists are working on biological control of the same plant.

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