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Finding the key to boost efficiency of 'bioenergy' trees

Published: 
11 March 2002

A University of Southampton led project seeks to identify the genes responsible for fast growth, carbon uptake and disease resistance in poplar trees.

Poplar trees are an example of 'bioenergy' trees, which can be grown, chipped and burned to generate electricity and are a renewable energy source. Poplars can also be considered 'carbon-neutral' as carbon dioxide is taken up by the trees during photosynthesis as they grow and then released on burning. In contrast, when fossil fuels are used to generate electricity, they contribute to the increase in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. Cultivating such 'bioenergy' trees could help European countries meet their current commitments to the Kyoto Protocol on reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

European Union funding of 2.32 million Euros has just been announced for the new project, named POPYOMICS, which will be coordinated by Dr Gail Taylor, from the School of Biological Sciences.

"Trees are difficult subjects for biological study as they are long-lived and slow growing," explains Dr Taylor. "Poplars are unusual, however, because 13,000 poplar tree genes have already been identified and placed on single microscopic slides, called microarrays. The only microarray facility for poplar in the world is at Umea in Sweden, and we will be using this in the project. By taking leaf samples and hybridising them to the DNA from the microarrays, we aim to find which genes are important for fast growth, carbon uptake and disease resistance."

"This is an example of how biotechnology can be used to address an issue of environmental sustainability," added Dr Taylor. "If we are able to identify important genes, trees possessing those genes can be selected for cultivation without the use of genetic modification."

A second project involving poplars (EUROFACE) has also just been funded by the European Union, and this will extend work on the unique poplar forest that was planted by Dr Taylor and partners in Italy in 1999. The trees are being exposed to an increased concentration of carbon dioxide, equal to the concentration predicted for 2050, in order to assess the capacity of these trees to 'lock up' carbon. The project brings a further 90,000 Euros of funding to the University of Southampton for Dr Taylor's contribution to the research.

Notes for editors

The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship. The University, which celebrates its Golden Jubilee in 2002, has 20,000 students and over 4,500 staff and plays an important role in the City of Southampton. Its annual turnover is in the region of £215 million.

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