UGA researchers have won a $1.34 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to attempt to increase the productivity of trees by genetically modifying certain proteins critical to wood formation. The study could have important implications in using trees as biofuel.
The research will be conducted by Scott Harding and Chung-Jui Tsai, faculty members at the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources.
They became interested in the possibility of manipulating sucrose transporter proteins, which shuttle food from leaves throughout the rest of the tree, during an unrelated project conducted by Raja Payyavula, a graduate student working for the pair. The student’s research led to the discovery of a connection between sucrose transporter genes and certain stimuli.
Sucrose transporter genes have been known about for a long time because they enable leaves to send the sugars they produce during photosynthesis to other parts of the growing plant that do not carry out photosynthesis. This would include grain or tubers in food crops. In a key and somewhat surprising finding by Harding and Tsai, sucrose transporter genes were found to be very abundant in developing the wood of young trees. They now want to know how a tree will react-positively or negatively-to further modification of those proteins.
They hope that tweaking the proteins will modify the way trees divide their photosynthate (sucrose and other sugars) between wood-forming and other organs like roots and bark. Wood is the raw feedstock for biofuels, and the research is being funded to learn about the potential of this gene for affecting wood growth, and thus tree growth, under a variety of environmental conditions.
“We know there’s a connection,” said Harding. “We just don’t know much about that connection right now.”
The research team already has begun its experiments with the award from the joint Plant Feedstock Genomics 2010 program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and DOE.
This program funds projects that accelerate plant breeding and improve biomass feedstocks to lay the groundwork for a new class of biofuels that are low-cost, high-quality and maximize the amount produced per acre.
“Cost-effective, sustainable biofuels are crucial to building a clean energy economy,” said Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. “By harnessing the power of science and technology, this joint effort between DOE and USDA will help accelerate research in the critical area of plant feedstocks, spurring the creation of the domestic bio-industry while creating jobs and reducing our dependence on foreign oil.”