An Oregon State University effort to identify genes that help poplar trees grow in marginal land received a $1.4 million boost from the U.S. Department of Energy and Office of Biological and Environmental Research on Wednesday.

The bioenergy research project’s co-lead, Pankaj Jaiswal, an OSU assistant professor in botany and plant pathology, is studying the genes of two varieties of poplar trees that can live on land unfit for food crops because it is too high in salt and too low in water.

The research project by investigators from OSU and Virginia Tech University was one of nine that were awarded investments by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Energy to stimulate the use of woody plant tissue for bioenergy and biofuel.

Jaiswal and Palitha Dharmawardhana, research associate in botany and plant pathology and co-principal investigator, already have begun work on the project at OSU.

Jaiswal said that poplar, the fastest growing wood species in the Northwest, offers several advantages for biomass production, in which plant matter is converted to fuel and becomes a potential energy source. Among the advantages: Poplar has a relatively rapid growth cycle of six to 12 years.

“What we are going to do is select some of the varieties, together in collaboration with the greenwoods, that are salinity- and drought-resistant,” Jaiswal said. “There is a lot of marginal land that is available for such crops where you can grow these crops that do not compete with the conventional agricultural crop plant. That’s an advantage in that sense.”

An example of the marginal land Jaiswal referred to is in Eastern Oregon. In fact, poplar plantations grown through irrigation already exist in the area. But before anything else, Jaiswal plans to understand these trees on the genetic level.

“We want to analyze in the molecular terms what goes on in these plants that are salinity and drought resistant, and we can identify the genetic elements that are responsible for contributing these kind of traits in the plant,” he said.

Under controlled conditions — with and without salinity and drought treatments — Jaiswal and Dharmawardhana expect to narrow down the search to a limited set of genes and their expression profiles that might contribute to the plants’ resistant character.

The project fits into the larger discussion of cost-effective biomass due to the poplar’s advantages as an ethanol feedstock, Jaiswal said. He expects biomass will become a viable alternative energy source when cost of production is reduced and marginal, nonagricultural land can be used.

About $1.1 million of the federal grant is going to OSU’s efforts, while the rest is going to Virginia Tech, where researchers Amy Brunner and Eric Beers will validate interactions between genes. The money will fund several project positions at OSU and Virginia Tech. It also will support various other costs, such as laboratory supplies, genome sequencing, greenhouse operations and travel for required project presentations.

Greenwood Resources in Portland is supplying the two varieties of poplars used for the study.


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