Poplar trees (genus Populus, not to be confused with yellow-poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera) are among the fastest-growing trees in the world, and represent a diverse wide-spread genus of trees. Poplars are grown in plantations for pulp and paper, and have great potential as feedstock for biofuels production.
Poplars have a lot of advantages as experimental plants, as they grow clonally from cuttings and are easy to hybridize. The poplar genome has been sequenced, making poplars even more attractive as research subjects and for advanced breeding.
Gary Coleman and his colleagues at the University of Maryland and Bowie State University have just received a $3.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to take advantage of the poplar genome map to try to improve the prospects for poplars as a biofuel feedstock.
Coleman’s group will use the poplar gene map to examine details about how poplars store and use nitrogen. Nitrogen is often the most limiting element in crop productivity, and trees are already fairly efficient at nitrogen use. Understanding the molecular details of how poplars use nitrogen may help increase productivity of poplar plantations with minimal nitrogen input.
Poplars already have advantages over more familiar biofuel crops such as switchgrass and Miscanthus. Poplars can grow on marginal farmland unsuitable for food production, minimizing competition between biofuels and food crops. Increasing the nitrogen efficiency of poplar plantations is an important step in making biofuel production economically viable.