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Genome BC Leading $8M Tree Genomics Program

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The Canadian government through Genome British Columbia and several other organizations will grant C$8.8 million ($8.2 million) for genomics research that will support the BC Bioenergy Strategy, which calls for increasing production of renewable biofuels in ways that do not compete with food supplies, Genome BC said.

These grants to researchers at The University of British Columbia will focus on using genomics in programs aimed at developing trees for use as biofuel.

One grant will provide C$7.7 million to research that will build on earlier Genome BC research into poplar tree genetics. Under the program, entitled Optimized Populus Feedstocks and Novel Enzyme Systems for a BC Bioenergy Sector, scientists will identify genetic characteristics of certain poplars that allow their woods to be broken down easily. The goal is to develop woods that could be used to produce liquid biofuels that can be produced rapidly and inexpensively, with less chemical processing.

Another grant will give C$1.1 million to determine the most efficient methods of extracting fermentable sugars from dead pine, sugars that could be broken down with enzymes and then fermented into ethanol. The goal is to take pines that have been felled by an infestation of Mountain Pine Beetles and convert some of their mass to ethanol.

"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," UBC's Dean of Forestry, Jack Saddler, said in a statement. Saddler also wants to make the method for the pine transferable to deciduous tree varieties.

"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," Saddler said.

The Lodgepole Pine genomics research program is co-funded by Novozymes and by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. The poplar research project is co-funded by the US Department of Energy Bioenergy Sciences Center, the US Department of Agriculture Forests Products Laboratory and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

Poplars are known for growing quickly and for being easy to convert to fermentable sugars, and it also is known for its capacity to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and even to clean contaminated waste sites, Genome BC said.

"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," UBC Professor Carl Douglas, who is one of the principal investigators on the Populus Feedstocks program, said in the statement. "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."