US $3.2M NSF Grant To Support Poplar Biofuels

A team of researchers at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Bowie State University is working on ways to turn poplar trees into high-yield crops for biofuels including ethanol, the renewable biofuel used in gasoline blends and flex-fuel vehicles. The hybrid trees would be grown on plantations and harvested without affecting existing woodlands.

The study is funded by a US $3.2 million, four-year grant from the National Science Foundation’s Plant Genome Research Project, which supports research on plants seen as having economic and agricultural importance. Using the recently completed poplar genome, the researchers are focusing on ways to improve the tree’s nitrogen processing capability, which will enhance its growth rate and feasibility for use in fuel production.

Simply growing acres of poplar trees to convert into biofuel isn’t enough to solve current fuel problems. Researchers already know how to make ethanol from fibrous plants, but for poplar to be truly effective as a biofuel source, its growth cycle needs to speed up and become more efficient. One of the keys to doing so is to understand how it stores and cycles nitrogen, since nitrogen is an important factor in the growth and productivity of trees and crops.

The research team, a mix of experts in metabolic engineering, genetics and plant biology, are examining how the thousands of genes in poplar are being switched on and off during the nitrogen storage cycle, measuring the rates of dozens of chemical reactions and studying the many proteins that facilitate all of the activity.