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Energy Dept Grant Funding Poplar Tree Rust Study

Poplar trees

Poplar trees (Lynn Greyling, Public Domain Pictures)

29 January 2018. A university-government biotechnology lab is studying the genomics of leaf rust, a fungus afflicting poplar trees, an emerging biofuel crop, with the goal of engineering resistance to the pathogen. A grant of $1.1 million from the U.S. Department of Energy is funding the 3-year project at the Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research in Rockville, Maryland, a joint research lab of University of Maryland campuses at College Park and Baltimore, and National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Poplars, or Populus spp., are a favorite tree species for landscaping and agriculture, as raw material for wood pulp to make paper, but also gaining more interest as a potential biofuel feedstock. The trees grow quickly, and can produce relatively large quantities of biomass in short periods of time. In addition, poplars have a high ratio of cellulose to lignin, where cellulose is a desired precursor for the carbohydrates that produce energy, and lignin in cell walls prevents enzymes from breaking down those carbohydrates for fermentation into biofuels.

A team at Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research, led by plant scientist Edward Eisenstein, is investigating the fungus Melampsora larici-populina, a widespread scourge of poplars that limits growth of the tree species in many parts of the world. The fungus depends on poplars to complete its life cycle, thus has a symbiotic relationship with the trees. Fungus spores develop on dead polar leaves on the ground, then germinate in the spring, becoming live wind-borne spores that infect live needles, creating the yellow-orange rust on poplar leaves. The rust spreads to other trees in the summer, and in the autumn, fall to the ground on dead leaves, restarting the cycle.

The researchers plan to conduct high-throughput screens of the Melampsora rust genome to identify the key factors promoting the fungus’s harmful effects that cause disease in poplars: suppression of immunity in poplar hosts and hijacking poplars’ nutrient pathways to spread disease. The project’s end result is a better understanding of the interaction between Melampsora rust and poplars, to enable engineering of the poplar genome to produce a more resistant variety.

The funding is issued under the Plant Feedstock Genomics for Bioenergy program, a joint initiative of Department of Energy’s Office of Science and National Institute of Food and Agriculture in U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program supports research to improve the use of biomass and feedstocks for production of ethanol and other renewable fuels, particularly with trees, shrubs, and grasses grown to make biofuels, rather than using farmland for food crops, such as corn.

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