Genome British Columbia

Genome British Columbia

August 24, 2009 09:00 ET

Genome British Columbia: Two Genomic Research Projects to Tackle Supply and Demand Issues in Emerging Forestry Biofuels Industry

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA--(Marketwire - Aug. 24, 2009) - In order to reduce the Province's greenhouse gas emissions, the BC Bioenergy Strategy is calling for greatly increased production of renewable biofuels such as ethanol, from biomass grown in BC.

But as ethanol produced from corn, sugar and other food products continues to raise concerns about impact on global food prices and availability, trees are being hailed as a source of next generation renewable biofuels.

In the meantime, the unprecedented devastation caused by the mountain pine beetle infestation in BC has created large amounts of unmarketable lodgepole pine that has the potential to supply the biofuel industry for the next 20 years and beyond.

While it seems to be a formula for success, there are many unanswered questions: How to efficiently convert this dead timber to ethanol? (Which is a much more complex process than grain conversion) Also, what new biomass crops or trees to develop and plant in order to guarantee a steady long-term supply of feedstock for BC biofuel production?

Two new research projects, largely funded by Genome BC, will help to answer these questions and unlock the valuable green energy found within BC's forests.

The first of the two projects will use genomics to determine the most efficient methods of liberating fermentable sugars from the dead pine - sugars that are broken down with enzymes and then fermented to ethanol.

Dr. Jack Saddler, UBC's Dean of Forestry, is leading this $1.1 million project, entitled, Optimizing Ethanol Fermentation From Mountain Pine Beetle Killed Lodgepole Pine.

"Trees are a huge store of chemical energy that can be converted into liquid biofuel - but we need to identify the ideal method to produce these sugars economically," he says. "What makes wood so difficult to breakdown when compared to corn or other starch-based biofuel, is that the cellulose, unlike starch, is designed by nature to NOT be broken down easily."

Saddler is confident that the solution they find 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 says.

Enter the poplar tree. As the fastest growing tree in North America, it is one of the only species that will be ready for harvest by the time the beetle-killed conifers have run out.

Principal investigators Drs. Carl Douglas and Shawn Mansfield, both of UBC, will aim to use genomics to optimize breeding and selection of poplars to improve their potential as a biofuel resource.

Their $7.7 million project, entitled Optimized Populus Feedstocks and Novel Enzyme Systems for a BC Bioenergy Sector, will build on a foundation of previous Genome BC research, which contributed to the sequencing of the poplar genome in 2004.

In addition to their quick growth, poplars, which are native to BC and many other regions, produce wood that is easier to convert to fermentable sugars for ethanol production than conifers. The tree is also well known for its capacity to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and even to clean up contaminated waste sites.

The researchers will identify the genetic characteristics of certain wild poplars that allow their woods to be broken down more easily, and with a higher yield, so that liquid biofuels can be produced more rapidly and inexpensively, with less chemical processing.

Mansfield maintains the importance of staying ahead of the curve: "We need to be thinking about feedstock supply 10-15 years from now, so that we will have poplars ready to be harvested, which will allow us to keep up with industry demand," he says.

This research will ultimately create the basis for a poplar-breeding program to fuel the forestry bioenergy sector.

Says Douglas, "Using the poplar's genome sequence, we can apply many of the same approaches used in human genomics to study the genetic basis of disease. This will enable the rapid improvement of this tree for use as biofuel feedstock and in future, plantations of improved poplar trees will have the potential to provide a source of renewable biofuels for BC."

Douglas also points out that these trees are highly adaptable and can be grown in many parts of the province, without affecting valuable farm land used for food production.

"Genome BC is proud to be a part of an international group of organizations that is funding these highly valuable research projects," says Dr. Alan Winter, President and CEO of Genome BC. "Ultimately, they will help reduce the human contribution to greenhouse gas emissions by developing ethanol-based alternatives."

About Genome BC

Founded in 2000, Genome BC works collaboratively with government, universities and industry as the catalyst for a genomics-driven life sciences cluster with significant social and economic benefits for the Province and Canada. The organization's research portfolio, over $410 million since inception, includes 74 projects and technology platforms focused on areas of strategic importance to British Columbia such as human health, forestry, fisheries, bioenergy, mining, agriculture, ethics and the environment.


Project leaders Dr. Jack Saddler, Dr. Carl Douglas and Dr. Shawn Mansfield will be available for interviews following the announcement of their projects at the IEA Bioenergy Conference at UBC.

Media are invited to attend. Telephone interviews and photos available on request.

Date/Time: Monday, August 24th, 2009, 10:20 a.m.

Place: UBC Forest Sciences Centre, 2424 Main Mall, Room 1005, Vancouver, BC


Two genomic research projects to tackle supply and demand issues in emerging forestry biofuels industry


Optimizing Ethanol Fermentation From Mountain Pine Beetle Killed Lodgepole Pine


The development of alternative energy sources like wood-to-ethanol biorefining is an important step to improving environmental sustainability. British Columbia has extensive forestry resources and, more importantly, has a problem/opportunity with how to better utilize mountain pine beetle-killed lodgepole pine that will be increasing unusable for traditional lumber and pulp and paper applications.

The researchers will use the excess beetle-killed pine as a source of fermentable sugars and will use genomics to enhance enzymes, nature's catalysts, to increase the efficiency of liberating fermentable sugars from the pine.

In order to produce ethanol from the complex sugars in woods such as lodgepole pine, the trees must be pretreated using a variety of different methods and then the wood is enzymatically digested into fermentable sugars. One method to liberate fermentable sugars is to use naturally occurring fungi that can digest the complex lignocellulose sugar in the wood. The researchers will identify proteins (enzymes) that improve the breakdown of specific lignocellulosic feedstocks by analyzing the proteome of secreted proteins (enzymes) in wood-degrading fungi.

The social science and humanities (SSH) component of this work looks at the potential environmental and economic impacts of the research. Life cycle and techno-economic modeling will be employed using existing models and incorporate project parameters in order to allow modeling of the technical results of the current project. Existing data, gathered through a literature review, will be inputted into life cycle and techno-economic models to create experience curves describing the impact of technological change. The experience curves will be broken down to better understand the impacts of each process stage (pretreatment, enzymatic hydrolysis, and fermentation) as well as the production of by-products on the costs of generating biofuels using the bioconversion platform. The life cycle and techno-economic models will then be used to evaluate the impacts of research in terms of environmental or economic measures. Ultimately, this combination of environmental and economic data will describe a suite of optimal approaches to bioconversion of lignocellulosic feedstock for BC.


Dr. Jack Saddler

Dr. Jack Saddler is Dean, Faculty of Forestry and Professor of the endowed Chair of Forest Products Biotechnology at the University of British Columbia. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and the winner of several international awards such as the IUFRO Scientific Achievement Award, the Charles D. Scott Award for Scientific/Technical Contributions to Biotechnology for the Production of Fuels and Chemicals, as well as receiving several other international recognitions.

His Ph.D. is from the University of Glasgow, Scotland (1978) and his BSc (Honours) from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (1975). He is Task Leader for the International Energy Agencies (IEAs) liquid biofuels network. His research involves the study of microbial lignocellulosic materials (forestry and agricultural materials) for ethanol production.

He has published over 300 peer reviewed articles, has been awarded several patents, is a reviewer for several international funding agencies such as the US Dept of Energy and the EU, and works with multinational companies/associations (OECD, IEA, etc.) in the biorefinery/ bioenergy/climate change areas.


Project Value: $1,153,604

Primary Project Funder: Genome British Columbia

Project Co-Funders: Novozymes Inc., NSERC

Involved Research Institution: University of British Columbia

Field of Activities: Biofuel, renewable energy, forestry


Optimized Populus Feedstocks and Novel Enzyme Systems for a British Columbia Bioenergy Sector


The human contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is a large factor in the recent global warming trends. Therefore, minimizing emissions is essential to sustaining the environment and reducing the rate of global warming. One of the major sources of greenhouse gas emissions is the use of petroleum products for fuel and there is an urgent need for bio-based alternatives including ethanol-derived fuels, as one part of greenhouse management strategies.

Poplar (black cottonwood, P. trichocarpa) is the first tree for which a complete genome sequence was determined, and the researchers aim to use this information and state of the art genomics tools to optimize breeding and selection of fast growing poplars (P. trichocarpa) to improve their potential as a biofuel resource.

Poplars and aspens are native to British Columbia, have inherently fast growth rates and wood that is easier to convert to fermentable sugars than conifers using current bioprocessing technologies. However, poplar wood is biochemically complex and more difficult than grains (like corn for example) to break down and liberate sugars for use in biofuel production. To facilitate rapid breeding of improved poplar varieties that have optimized biofuels and biomass traits, the researchers will perform genomic, phenotypic and genetic analyses to study natural poplar variants and will collaborate with US Department of Energy-funded scientists to identify gene variants that contribute to improved traits. To enhance the efficiency of solubilization of fermentable sugars from poplar wood, the researchers will also collaborate with American counterparts to find enzymes in wood-rotting fungi that will help liberate the sugars from the complex macromolecules in wood. Concurrently, this project will investigate the economic feasibility of establishing poplar plantations as a source of biofuels as well as the public perceptions surrounding biofuel plantations.

Public awareness of, and concern about, the influence of forest management practices on genetic variation of forests is growing. The focus of the social science and humanities (SSH) component of this research will therefore examine the social context of Canadian forest management policies that promote breeding and selection strategies for P. trichocarpa plantations for use in bioenergy by developing, delivering and analyzing a survey of British Columbians' attitudes toward the use of selectively bred poplar for bioenergy. It is anticipated that by understanding public attitudes toward the management of forest lands and genetic stocks, natural resource managers and planners may anticipate the public acceptability of certain management actions and identify areas that may require communication strategies to explain the rationale behind management actions. Combined with the analysis of the economic implications of large-scale selectively bred tree plantations, this research will develop policy options for the management of selectively bred trees for use in bioenergy production.


Dr. Carl Douglas

Dr. Carl Douglas is a professor at The University of British Columbia in the Department of Botany, where he began as an assistant professor in 1987. He earned his PhD at the University of Washington in 1983 working in the area of plant transformation by Agrobacterium tumefaciens. This was followed by postdoctoral fellow positions at the University of Washington and the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research in Cologne, Germany where he worked in the area of plant molecular biology and biochemistry. At UBC, he was promoted to associate and full professor, and served as Department Head from 1999 to 2006. He spent the 2001/02 academic year as a guest professor at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Vienna, Austria, and was a guest professor at the CNRS/Universite Paul Sabatier, Toulouse, France in 2007.

Dr. Douglas' research interests are in the area of the control of plant gene expression, plant phenolic metabolism, plant cell walls, and plant and tree genomics. He was a co-Principal Investigator on the Genome Canada Competition I Forestry Genomics (Treenomix) project and was a major contributor to the sequencing of the poplar genome. His lab has used Populus (poplar) as a model tree species to study the regulation of wood development since 1988. He is currently working both on Arabidopsis and poplar as model systems to study the genetic regulation of secondary cell wall formation, the formation of the extremely durable pollen cell wall, and on methods to improve poplar and other trees as a potential crop for alternative energy sources.

He has invited to give recent lectures in the U.S., Japan, Germany, Spain, and Cuba. He currently teaches first year biology in the UBC Science One Program.

Dr. Shawn Mansfield

Dr. Shawn Mansfield is an associate professor at UBC in the Department of Wood Science in the Faculty of Forestry. He received his MSc in microbiology and immunology from Dalhousie University (1994) and PhD in forestry from UBC in forest products biotechnology (1997) working novel enzyme applications for wood and fibre development. Dr. Mansfield was a postdoctoral fellow at the Forest Science Research Institute of New Zealand from 1998-99 and concurrently held a visiting scholar position at the University of Waikato in the Department of Biological Sciences where he taught biochemistry. He is the current Canada Research Chair in Wood and Fibre Quality Research and is a Fellow of the International Academy of Wood Science.

Dr. Mansfield's research interests involve studying the biochemistry and genetics of forestry products including cellulose biosynthesis, biotechnological applications of enzymes in pulp and paper quality and the genetic relationship of gene expression and desirable phenotypic traits. He is currently a Project co-Leader with Dr. Carl Douglas on studying poplar as a potential source of biomass for alternative energy sources.


Project Value: $7,683,501

Primary Project Funder: Genome British Columbia

Project Co-Funders: US Department of Energy Bioenergy Sciences Center (Oak Ridge, TN); US Department of Agriculture Forest Products Laboratory (Madison, WI); Sveriges Lantbruksuniversitet (SLU) ENERGYPOPLAR (Umea, Sweden)

Involved Research Institutions: University of British Columbia, University of Victoria

Field of Activities: Biofuel development, forestry, alternative energy sources

For more information about Genome BC, visit

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