Genome British Columbia funds pine beetle, poplar biomass projects

By Anna Austin
Posted August 25, 2009, at 5:08 p.m. CST

Genome British Columbia announced it will be the primary funder of two genomic research projects designed to increase the production of biofuels from biomass grown in British Columbia, particularly from lodgepole pines killed by the current pine beetle infestation and the production of wild poplar trees that could potentially replace them.

According to the Canadian Ministry of Forests and Range, as of 2008 the cumulative area of provincial forest affected to some degree by the pine beetle was about 14.5 million hectares (36 million acres).

The research projects will focus on efficiently converting the dead timber to ethanol, and the optimization of breeding and selection of poplars.

Jack Saddler, University of British Columbia dean of forestry, will lead the first project, which is titled "Optimizing Ethanol Fermentation of Mountain Pine Beetle Killed Lodgepole Pine."

Enzyme producer Novozymes and the Canadian Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council are co-funding the project.

Saddler said trees are a huge store of chemical energy that can be concerted into liquid biofuel, but ideal methods to economically produce sugars need to be identified. He is confident that the solution found for coniferous trees will be transferable to deciduous varieties as well. "The idea is that once the dead lodgepole pine starts to run out in about 20 years, we will have had enough time to replant with a fast-growing variety to replace it," he added. The researchers believe poplar trees will make an adequate substitute.

The second project, at a cost of $7.7 million, will build on previous Genome British Columbia research involving the sequencing of the poplar genome. "Optimized Populus Feedstocks and Novel Enzyme Systems for a BC Bioenergy Sector" will be led by principal investigators Carl Douglas and Shawn Mansfield of the University of British Columbia. The researchers will work to identify the genetic characteristics of certain wild poplars that allow their woods to be broken down more easily with a higher yield, for quicker and less expensive production of biofuels with less chemical processing.

The U.S. DOE Bioenergy Sciences Center, USDA Forest Products Laboratory, and Sweden-based Sveriges Lantbruksuniversitet Energypoplar are project co-funders.

"We need to be thinking about feedstock supply 10 to 15 years from now, so that we will have poplars ready to be harvested, which will allow us to keep up with industry demand," Mansfield said.

For more information about the projects, visit