BC researchers clearing the way for clean energy

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Source: GLOBE Foundation

Two British Columbia researchers are making a significant contribution to the development of clean energy through their study of the genetics of the poplar tree.

In 2010 both the Government of BC and the Government of Canada mandated a minimum of 5% renewable fuel content in gasoline. Additionally, BC has gone as far as requesting both a 10% reduction in carbon emissions, and a 33% reduction in provincial greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

To help meet the mandates for cleaner energy; Genome Canada, Genome BC and other partners have funded a $9.8 million research project 'POPCAN: Genetic Improvement of Poplar Trees as a Canadian Bioenergy Feedstock'.

Principal investigators Dr. Carl Douglas and Dr. Shawn Mansfield, both at UBC, are using genomics to enhance breeding and selection of poplars to improve their potential as a biofuel resource.

Current production of biofuels, which are almost exclusively derived from agricultural residues, is insufficient to produce the requisite volume.

The researchers are using genomics to study tree growth at the molecular level, as well as wood traits associated with biofuel suitability in Populus trichocarpa and P. balsamifera, two poplar species that span the Canadian landscape.

Their overall aim is to develop short-rotation, fast-growing trees that can grow in a variety of climates across Canada, and produce wood that can be more readily converted to biofuel while minimizing the ecological footprint.

'In human health we know that particular genes are relevant in certain diseases such as cancer, for example,' says Dr. Douglas. 'We are able to use a similar approach with poplar gene analysis by looking for genes and gene variants related to the desired traits of growth and biomass that would allow us to select stocks more amenable to the bioconversion process used to generate biofuels, such as ethanol.'

By basing the research in BC where they are able to build on their previous work supported by Genome BC, but expanding Canada-wide with strategic partners and end-users, the project is working towards 'home-grown' solutions for our energy needs now, and in the future.

'The uptake on information from this project, and our past applied genomics project, has been very good,' says Dr. Mansfield.

'Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada have already translated knowledge from our research by employing selected tree 'genotypes' into a breeding program to analyze if key traits are handed-down to offspring. End-users are very much in tune with the research outcomes and results and are willing to use the data in new breeding strategies.'

Concurrently with the genomics research, a team of economists led by Dr. Martin Luckert at the University of Alberta is looking into the economic benefits and impacts of changing forest lands to fast-rotation poplar plantations.

The potential payoff from a new energy crop is not just financial; there is also likely to be associated job creation and stability in rural communities.

'The project outcomes from this research will benefit every Canadian,' says Dr. Alan Winter, President & CEO of Genome BC.

Genome BC has funded the POPCAN project as part of Genome Canada's 2010 Large-Scale Applied Research Project Competition

At GLOBE 2012, taking place march 14-16, 2012, a special Energy Leaders Dialogue will bring together senior executives from leading international energy companies to discuss the factors shaping our energy future and to share their insights on the changing economics of energy, including biofuels. Check here for more information on GLOBE 2012

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