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
"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."
"The college made the decision to enter into the specialized and highly competitive research arena of molecular genetics, and Drs. Brunner and Holliday are making important contributions to the body of molecular genetics science of tree species," said
Brunner and Holliday are experimenting with the FT2 gene, which regulates vegetative growth. "In addition to seasonal dormancy, which happens when days get shorter, a common response to stress by woody plants is to stop growing and wait for things to get better, which is important to natural populations' ability to survive adverse conditions," said Brunner.
"Jason and I are melding our expertise to understand growth and dormancy transitions," she continued. "We will identify specific control points that can be manipulated to maximize growth in different environments."
The FT2 gene integrates signals regarding environmental conditions, such as day length and drought, to control shoot growth or regrowth after harvest.
"If we understand the network, such as what genes are sending the signal regarding nutrient level or day length, then we can use that in a breeding program for optimal biomass production in specific climates and on marginal lands," said Brunner.
"This is also relevant to how to manage the health of this species' natural populations in light of climate change, since, for instance, temperature also impacts seasonal dormancy," she added.
After identifying components of the response networks to day length and nutrient level that act through FT2, five to six genes will be selected for functional analysis to validate their utility for enhancing plant growth and yield under different environmental conditions.
Brunner has 20 years' experience studying the regulation of Populus growth and development at the genetic level. She was a member of a team that received
She and colleagues also identified genetic controls associated with tree growth and response to the environment. That work, funded by the
Holliday has extensive experience with all aspects of next generation sequencing and is presently doing sequence capture research funded by the
"Populus is grown for biomass in the
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