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Genomic research projects to tackle supply and demand issues in emerging forestry biofuels industry


Vancouver, BC – Two new research projects, receiving a total of nearly $9 million in funding from Genome BC, are focused on discovering efficient and long-term supplies of feedstock for biofuel production.

The first of the two projects will use genomics to determine the most efficient methods of liberating fermentable sugars from the dead pine – sugars that are broken down with enzymes and then fermented to ethanol.

Dr Jack Saddler, the University of British Columbia (UBC)’s dean of forestry, is leading the $1.1 million project, entitled Optimizing Ethanol Fermentation From Mountain Pine Beetle Killed Lodgepole Pine.

“Trees are a huge store of chemical energy that can be converted into liquid biofuel – but we need to identify the ideal method to produce these sugars economically,” he says. “What makes wood so difficult to breakdown when compared to corn or other starch-based biofuel, is that the cellulose, unlike starch, is designed by nature to NOT be broken down easily.”

Dr Saddler says he is confident that the solution they find for coniferous trees will be transferable to deciduous varieties as well. “The idea is that once the dead lodgepole pine starts to run out in about 20 years, we will have had enough time to replant with a fast growing variety to replace it,” he says.

A fastest growing tree in North America, the poplar, is being considered for planting as it is one of the only species that will be ready for harvest by the time the beetle-killed conifers have run out. Principal investigators Drs Carl Douglas and Shawn Mansfield, both of UBC, will aim to use genomics to optimize breeding and selection of poplars to improve their potential as a biofuel resource.

Their $7.7 million project, entitled Optimized Populus Feedstocks and Novel Enzyme Systems for a BC Bioenergy Sector, will build on a foundation of previous Genome BC research, which contributed to the sequencing of the poplar genome in 2004.

In addition to their quick growth, poplars, which are native to BC and many other regions, produce wood that is easier to convert to fermentable sugars for ethanol production than conifers. The tree is also well known for its capacity to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and even to clean up contaminated waste sites.

The researchers will identify the genetic characteristics of certain wild poplars that allow their woods to be broken down more easily, and with a higher yield, so that liquid biofuels can be produced more rapidly and inexpensively, with less chemical processing.

Dr Mansfield maintains the importance of staying ahead of the curve: “We need to be thinking about feedstock supply 10-15 years from now, so that we will have poplars ready to be harvested, which will allow us to keep up with industry demand,” he says.

This research will ultimately create the basis for a poplar-breeding program to fuel the forestry bioenergy sector.

“Using the poplar’s genome sequence, we can apply many of the same approaches used in human genomics to study the genetic basis of disease,” says Dr Douglas. “This will enable the rapid improvement of this tree for use as biofuel feedstock and in future, plantations of improved poplar trees will have the potential to provide a source of renewable biofuels for BC.”

He also points out that these trees are highly adaptable and can be grown in many parts of the province, without affecting valuable farm land used for food production.

“Genome BC is proud to be a part of an international group of organizations that is funding these highly valuable research projects,” says Dr Alan Winter, president and CEO of Genome BC. “Ultimately, they will help reduce the human contribution to greenhouse gas emissions by developing ethanol-based alternatives.”