Initial field test results on GM poplars: bioethanol yield is almost doubled

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Initial field test results GM poplars: bioethanol yield almost doubled 19/05/2011 VIB News, Belgium

​Nancy, France, May 19, 2011 – The yield of bio-ethanol from the wood of GM poplar trees from a VIB field trial is up to 81% higher than non-modified poplars VIB-UGent researcher Wout Boerjan presented these results at the international conference “Bioenergy Trees”  in Nancy, France.

“This is just the beginning. The results of the field test confirm that we are on the right track. Further research will allow us to select poplar varieties that are even better suited for bio-ethanol production,” said Wout Boerjan from VIB and Ghent University.

Poplars have great potential as a source for biofuels such as bio-ethanol. They require, despite their rapid growth, little energy or fertilizer and can grow on poor soils that are not suited for food production. Bio-ethanol can be used to replace conventional gasoline.

At present, it is difficult to produce bio-ethanol from wood. Lignin, a plant polymer that holds together the fibers in wood, physically hinders the breakdown of these fibers into glucose – the basis of ethanol production. To make the conversion of wood into bio-ethanol more efficient, scientists from VIB selected trees with a reduced production of lignin. To achieve this, they partially suppressed a gene (CCR) involved in the production of lignin.

The trees were planted in 2009 and first cut in 2010. During the past year, the composition of the wood was examined and in collaboration with researchers in the U.S. and the Ghent University the conversion to bio-ethanol was studied. The results now clearly show that lower lignin production leads to a higher yield of bio-ethanol. Per gram of dry wood the yield of bio-ethanol from the genetically modified trees was up to 81% higher than for trees with unmodified lignin.

Participating research groups

Wout Boerjan’s research fits into the spearhead program Biotechnology for a Sustainable Economy of Ghent University, which wants to establish a link between the production of biomass (green biotechnology) and their processing on an industrial scale (white biotechnology). The project is in collaboration with Nicholas Santoro of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) and Wim Soetaert of Ghent University and Bio Pilot Plant Base Europe.

Conference on Bioenergy Trees 17-19 May 2011

Further background

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David Tribe is an applied geneticist, teaching graduate/undergrad courses in food science, food safety, biotechnology and microbiology at the University of Melbourne.