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Forestry geneticists develop tree biomass crop to grow on marginal lands

Sept. 10, 2014 – Two Virginia Tech researchers have received a $1.4 million grant to investigate the genetic regulatory networks that will allow an important bioenergy crop to be bred so it will grow in less than ideal soils and climate.

Populus, a genus of fast-growing trees commonly known as cottonwoods and aspens, is being grown for bioenergy because it produces a significant amount of biomass in two years and will re-grow robustly when cut at just above ground level. Woody biomass can be converted to liquid fuels, such as ethanol.

“The goal is to develop the species so it will not become dormant in conditions that would stress other crops, such as high temperature, drought, or marginal soil nutrients,” said Amy Brunner, associate professor of molecular genetics in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment and an affiliate of the Fralin Life Science Institute. “It is important that bioenergy crops not require prime agricultural land.”

“We don’t want biomass production to compete with food production,” she continued. “The aim is to minimize inputs, develop varieties that grow in different environments, and maximize biomass production.”

Brunner and Jason Holliday, assistant professor of forest genetics and biotechnology in the college and a fellow Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate, received the grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research. Their project is one of 10 grants awarded as part of the national strategy of sustainable biofuels production. (continue reading.........)

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