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'Unzipping' poplars' biofuel potential
Date:4/3/2014

EAST LANSING, Mich. What began 20 years ago as an innovation to improve paper industry processes and dairy forage digestibility may now open the door to a much more energy- and cost-efficient way to convert biomass into fuel.

The research, which appears in the current issue of Science, focuses on enhancing poplar trees so they can break down easier and thus improving their viability as a biofuel. The long-term efforts and teamwork involved to find this solution can be described as a rare, top-down approach to engineering plants for digestibility, said Curtis Wilkerson, Michigan State University plant biologist and the lead author.

"By designing poplars for deconstruction, we can improve the degradability of a very useful biomass product," said Wilkerson, Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center scientist. "Poplars are dense, easy to store and they flourish on marginal lands not suitable for food crops, making them a non-competing and sustainable source of biofuel."

The idea to engineer biomass for easier degradation first took shape in the mid-1990s in the lab of John Ralph, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and GLBRC plants leader. Ralph's group was looking to reduce energy usage in the paper pulping process by more efficiently removing lignin the polymer that gives plant cell walls their sturdiness from trees. If weak bonds could be introduced into lignin, this hardy material could be "unzipped," making it much easier for chemical processes to break it down.

Ralph's approach had clear benefits for the biofuels industry as well. The difficulty in removing and processing lignin remains a major obstacle to accessing the valuable sugars contained within biomass, adding energy and cost to the production of biofuels. Seeing an opportunity to carry out Ralph's concept in poplar, GLBRC researchers pooled their expertise.

To produce the enhanced poplars, Wilkerson identified and isolated a gene capable of mak
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Contact: Layne Cameron
layne.cameron@cabs.msu.edu
517-353-8819
Michigan State University
Source:Eurekalert  

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