This is an excerpt from EERE Network News, a weekly electronic newsletter.

September 20, 2006

Sequencing of Poplar Genome Could Boost Biomass Production

A photo looking between perfectly straight rows of poplar trees stretching above the frame of the image, with additonal rows of trees visible on each side.

Poplars are fast-growing trees that can be grown on tree farms, such as this commercial plot in Washington State.
Credit: Warren Gretz

A newly published research paper documents the first complete DNA analysis of a tree, which could yield new fast-growing trees that are bioengineered for energy production. The paper, published in the September 15th edition of the journal Science, summarizes the efforts of DOE's Joint Genome Institute, DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and 34 international institutions to analyze the genome of the black cottonwood, or Populus trichocarpa. The poplar's extraordinarily rapid growth, and its relatively compact genome size of 480 million nucleotide units (40 times smaller than the genome of pine), are among the many features that led researchers to target poplar as a model crop for biomass energy production. Poplar is only the third plant to date to have its genome completely sequenced and published. The project identified more than 45,000 protein-coding genes—more than any other organism sequenced to date—and 93 genes associated with the production of cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin, the building blocks of plant cell walls. See the announcement from the Joint Genome Institute.

A variety of companies and agencies are examining ways to draw more energy from trees and other plants. DOE's Sandia National Laboratories announced in August a three-year research collaboration with Monsanto Corporation to develop new seed products for farmers, including corn products that may be able to yield more ethanol per bushel. DuPont is also developing corn hybrids for ethanol production and is collaborating with Bunge, a food and feed ingredient company, to develop soybeans that will yield more biodiesel. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research arm, the Agriculture Research Service (ARS), has been studying a wide variety of crops, recently finding that growing switchgrass stores more carbon in the soil than growing corn. In past months, the ARS has also identified citrus peel waste and pea starch as potential sources of ethanol fuel and has derived metalworking and crankcase lubricants from vegetable oils. See the press releases from Sandia and Bunge, and the ARS press releases on switchgrass, citrus peel waste, pea starch, metalworking lubricants, and crankcase oils.