The extensive use of fossil fuels is a key contributor to climate change. The Government of Canada mandated a five percent renewable fuel content in gasoline, however production is mostly derived from agricultural residues, and insufficient to produce the necessary volume. Poplar trees, grown commercially in high yielding plantations as a source of woody biomass, offer an attractive option as a source of bioenergy.
POPCAN generated genomic data that can be used to support genetic improvement of poplar varieties better suited to offer fast-growing, tree-based bioenergy plantations that can effectively populate a variety of climate zones across Canada with a minimal ecological footprint.
The team characterized genetic and trait diversity in two prominent Canadian poplar species identifying them as strong candidates for breeding programs to generate genetically improved woody biomass feedstocks across Canada. Using extensive collections of wild individuals grown in common gardens in several locations, they determined over 100 traits pertaining to wood characteristics important for bioenergy, as well growth, yield, and pathogen resistance traits in nearly 1000 different individual trees.
In parallel, genome sequences of the same trees revealed astounding levels of trait variation between different individuals grown side by side in common gardens, as well as very high levels of genetic diversity. Using tools of genomic science, statistics, and evolutionary biology, they identified large numbers of new genes and gene variants that are correlated with traits important for bioenergy and for growth and yield of trees in different environments.
The project also examined conditions needed to make plantations financially viable on private lands, and the potential to use public lands. Current private land prices are prohibitively high and short rotation regimes were worse financially than longer rotation (i.e., 18 – 20 year) at the current timber and carbon prices. As a result, the social research component focused on establishing a framework for land use change and policy recommendations that would help make the science a reality.