Knowledge Based Bio-Economy


Improved poplar trees as energy sources

Project Acronym: ENERGYPOPLAR

Title of project: Enhancing poplar traits for energy applications

Research area: Biotechnologies (Energy plants - novel plants for energy production)

Contract No: 211917

EU Contribution: 2.987 000 EURO

Start date: March 2008

Duration: 48 Months


Biofuels can minimise dependence on energy imports, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and assist rural and agricultural development. At present bioethanol is produced from maize and sugar cane, However, second generation bioethanol can be produced from lignocellulosic crops that do not compete with food crops for land use since alcohol can be obtained from cellulose, a carbohydrate polymer present in the cell wall of woody plants. Trees are attractive in this context since they produce fast growing biomass and can be grown on marginal lands unsuited to other agricultural crops, with reduced input costs and optimised land management. Poplar is a fast growing tree producing a reasonable annual yield, but the composition of the wood must be optimised for biological conversion. Hence, this project aims to address these constraints by developing trees with desirable cell-wall traits and high biomass yield under sustainable low-input conditions.

The project aims to provide a better understanding of fundamental mechanisms determining yield in Populus and elucidate mechanisms that regulate the synthesis of cell wall polysaccharides generating a better understanding of lignocellulosic quality. In particular it aims to establish the genetic and genomic basis of 'high cellulose' trees linked to alterations in the quality and quantity of lignin. To do this the project will develop high throughput assays for lignocellulosic quality and lignocellulose saccharification potential establishing a platform for rapid genes discovery. Results will be tested using systems biology approaches to identify novel transcripts for traits of interest, developing a delivery pipeline for improved genotypes for trees with traits of interest. A mechanism for assessing the environmental sustainability of Populus short rotation growing systems will be established and the commercialisation of the process initiated.

Expected Impact

This project should impact on European energy policy in the longer term. The use of plants as energy sources is being promoted through various European initiative that aim to achieve 5.75% of liquid fuel supply from such sources by 2010 rising to 20% by 2020. The production of liquid fuels derived from cellulosic biomass sources with high growth rates within the European Community can potentially have a significant impact on public opinion and offer an important alternative to conventional energy sources, reducing Europe's dependence on fossil fuels.

The scientific investigations should impact on the main technical difficulty of using woody materials as a source of fermentation substrate by making the cellulose molecules more accessible for conversion to sugars. In the short term the overall impact will be reduced by the long lead times to large scale production on a commercial basis. This reflects the time taken for poplar to reach harvestable yield.

Expected Results

The project will provide a theoretical pipeline for the delivery of tailored economic and sustainable plant lignocellulosic biomass for the bioethanol industry. This will be based on low-input and systems that are environmentally sound using lower agrochemical inputs It will provide results from a structured progression of studies from basic investigations on genetic aspects to impact of climate change on the future potential of the crop. Studies on the mechanisms that regulate the synthesis of cell wall polysaccharides will provide further understanding of the mechanisms determining optimised yield in Populus. It will provide information on the genetic and genomic basis of trees that contain high levels of cellulose and low levels of lignin in the cell wall. Results will depend on the development of new high throughput assays for lignocellulosic quality and accharification potential.

The knowledge of genes that control the traits of interest will be exploited in two ways: either by utilizing existing natural variation to identify useful combinations by means of marker assisted selection or by generating new variation by producing transgenic trees through gene stacking. The work is expected to discover new genes for traits of interest. However, given the long generation times of the species, results presented as proofs of concept may have to be confirmed after the project has ended. Taking this limitation into account the project will construct a theoretical tool in order to evaluate environmental impacts and sustainability. Major changes in future climate and their impact on the quality and quantity of cellulosic feedstock will also be estimated using a scenarios-based approach.

Website of project:


Coordinator: Francis MARTIN

Organisation National Agricultural Research Organisation, France,


Swedish Agricultural University, Sweden,

Albert-Ludwigs-University Freiburg, Germany,

Flanders Institute for Biotechnology, Belgium,

University of Southampton, UK,

Institute of Applied genetics, Italy,

Georg-August-University Goettingen, Germany,

SweTree Technologies , Sweden,

Imperial College, UK,

INRA Transfert S.A. France,