University Of Georgia Researchers Will Reengineer Poplar

A multidisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Georgia and two partner institutions have been awarded a $15.8 million grant over five years from the U.S. Dept. of Energy to reengineer poplar trees to be used as a sustainable energy source.

The researchers will use state-of the-art biotechnology approaches to breed the trees as a multipurpose crop that can be used for bioenergy, biomaterial and bioproduct alternatives to petroleum-based materials.

“Poplars are among the fastest growing trees in the United States and are important for both carbon sequestration and global carbon cycling,” says Robin Buell, principal investigator on the grant and the GRA Eminent Scholar Chair in Crop Genomics at the Center for Applied Genetic Technologies in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

The team will start by measuring mRNA transcripts in single cells—mRNA transcripts are portable strands of RNA that encapsulate the information contained in a gene —and will look at how the 3D DNA changes in single cells. From this, they will create a cell type-specific gene expression and regulatory map of poplar that will provide new information on gene function.

Ultimately, the project aims to fabricate new types of poplar through genetic modification.

“What we propose is to genetically engineer poplar to make it a multipurpose crop by changing its architecture and engineering it to produce different things in the leaves and wood,” Buell says, adding that the team will try to engineer several different types of poplar trees in the study to take advantage of different plant materials—such as the wood or the leaves—for different uses.

Through biotechnology, plant materials harvested from the reengineered architecture of the tree will be used to create products that have the potential to replace petroleum-based products.

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