Researcher aims to improve pine biomass yield

University of Massachusetts Amherst
December 20, 2016
By University of Massachusetts Amherst
Dec. 20, 2016 - Global demand for forest products such as pulp for paper, saw timber and wood pellets for fuel is expected to increase in coming years. To meet this need, University of Massachusetts Amherst plant geneticist Sam Hazen, whose research has led to higher biomass yield in grasses, recently received a grant to demonstrate that his new technology can be translated to grow trees that produce more wood than conventional trees.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Hazen a three-year, $713,000 grant to study gene regulation of cell wall growth in the model grass species Brachypodium. His experiments will advance understanding of the transcription networks that regulate secondary cell wall biosynthesis in grasses.

Understanding the cell wall, which is a complex blend of polysaccharides, proteins and lignin, plus the processes and genes that regulate them, could have a big impact on commercial agriculture, he points out.

Hazen, an associate professor of biology at UMass Amherst, has partnered with a local biotechnology startup in Amherst, Genoverde Biosciences, Inc. to test the commercial viability of technology developed in his lab. He is also chief scientific officer for Genoverde. The company recently received a one-year, $225,000 grant from NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research program to evaluate the use of its “gene trait approach” to bioengineering loblolly pine for high wood density by modifying secondary cell wall gene regulation.

“Our goal is to demonstrate that we can provide more renewable biomass in loblolly pine by adapting the process at work in grasses,” Hazen says. Loblolly pine tree farms in the United States are expected to play a large role in meeting increased global demand for wood in coming years and this technology has the potential to help meet that need.

If successful, this bioengineering project would provide more wood material per tree and per acre with no added cost to production processing. That is, no increased use of land, water or fertilizers, the researchers say. As an added benefit, bioengineered trees would help to protect the environment by sequestering more atmospheric carbon dioxide to mitigate global climate change.

Hazen explains, “For years we have been doing the basic science to understand the gene regulation of plant growth, and we discovered something that can potentially be used as gene technology to increase cell wall growth. Since trees are made up mostly of cell wall, this biotechnology would lead to increasing biomass up to 20 per cent. Yielding that much more wood density would definitely be economically worth the effort.”

Genoverde’s CEO Michael Harrington says by redesigning and optimizing the technology developed for grasses specifically for loblolly pine, he expects to see similar yield increases leading to the company’s first entry into the forest products market with a bioengineered pine tree. At the same time, Genoverde is exploring the use of this and similar technologies that enhance yield in other commercially important agricultural crops, he notes.

In collaboration with Genoverde, the Hazen lab will plant bioengineered pine seedlings in a greenhouse to test the new approach to greater strength and increased biomass leading to a commercially valuable improved tree crop.

The NSF fundamental research project will also provide training in development, genetics, genomics and biochemistry for at least two UMass Amherst graduate students, plus an internship for several students from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), part of the Rochester Institute of Technology of Rochester, New York. Hazen’s laboratory has sponsored visiting NTID interns in the past in what he calls a “very rewarding” partnership that he is pleased to continue.

“It means arranging the laboratory environment to make it work for students with special needs, and the effort serves to show them that they can absolutely participate and be scientists,” Hazen notes. “It has been very satisfying for us to welcome NTID students to the lab in the past and we look forward to continuing that as part of this grant.”

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