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Home > Feature Articles > Alternative Energy Solutions

Biofuel from Poplar Trees that grow from Alaska to San Diego

Biofuel could benefit from the black cottonwood because of its rapid growth - it can grow 12 feet a year and mature in four years

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california precipitation landscape and solar solutions The research team chose the black cottonwood for this latest effort because of its rapid growth - it can grow 12 feet a year and mature in four years OAK RIDGE, Tennessee, September 15, 2006 (ENS) - Scientists have completed the first genome sequence of a tree and the analysis could prove a major step forward in the effort to fine-tune plants for the economically viable and efficient production of biofuels.

The black cottonwood is a tall, fast-growing poplar, native to the Pacific coast from Alaska to San Diego. The black cottonwood is only the third plant to date to have its complete genome completely sequenced and published, following rice and a tiny weed known as Arabidopsis thaliana.

The research team chose the black cottonwood for this latest effort because of its rapid growth - it can grow 12 feet a year and mature in four years - and the relatively small size of its genome, which is made up of 480 million base pairs.

This is 40 times fewer than the genome of a pine. tree The black cottonwood can grow to heights of more than 100 feet. Researchers identified more than 45,000 protein-coding genes - more than any other organism sequenced to date. The poplar has twice the number of genes as the human genome, which is six times larger than the tree's.

The analysis found 93 genes associated with the production of cellulose, the building blocks of plant cell walls and the most abundant organic material on the planet. This is critical for the biofuels concept as cellulose can be broken down into sugars that in turn can be fermented into alcohol and distilled to yield fuel-quality ethanol and other liquid fuels.

These genes could be specifically selected through traditional plant breeding to efficiently produce the kind of cellulose needed to make biofuel production cost-effective and efficient, the researchers said.

"We are not talking about a genetically modified organism," said John Mark Davis, a University of Florida researcher who collaborated on the sequencing project. "This is a wild tree, and there's enough genetic variation already out there for us to get the plant we want without direct genetic manipulation."

Published in the journal "Science," the analysis of the black cottonwood is the product of a four-year international effort by more than 100 reserachers at 34 scientific institutions.

The effort to sequence the black cottonwood's genome was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and is part of a broader effort to replace 30 percent of the fuel burned in the U.S. with biomass fuels by 2030.

The department is keen on a future that includes vast poplar farms in regions such as the Pacific Northwest, the upper Midwest and portions of the southeastern United States. These farms could provide a steady supply of tree biomass rich in cellulose that can be transformed by specialized biorefineries into fuels like ethanol.

The study's authors note that the potential for farms of biofuel-production poplars would come with added environmental benefits - less pollution than gasoline and additional carbon storage.

"Trees store captured carbon dioxide in their leaves, branches, stems, and roots," said Gerald Tuskan, an Energy Department scientist and lead author of the study. "This natural process provides opportunities to improve carbon removal from the air by producing trees that effectively shuttle and store more carbon below ground in their roots and the soil."

"Basically, you would have a fuel source for our cars that, in the big picture, could help capture almost as much carbon dioxide as it produces," added coauthor Gary Peter, a forest genomics and cell biology professor at the University of Florida. "That would go a long way in slowing the biggest driver of global warming."

Stephen DiFazio, a West Virginia University biologist and coauthor of the paper said the genome sequence is already having "a profound impact on forest biotechnology research."

"This is greatly accelerating the discovery of genes that control many different aspects of forest tree biology, and is paving the way for marked improvements in forest plantation productivity that could rival those of the green revolution in agriculture," DiFazio said. "I think the most far-reaching impacts of this research will be in the fields of ecology and environmental biology since for the first time we now have, in our hands, the blueprint for understanding the intricacies of adaptation in an ecologically-dominant organism.



Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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