Associate Professor Amy Brunner is part of a team researching the genomics of wood for biofuels production. Along with Eric Beers, professor of horticulture; Richard Helm, associate professor of biochemistry; and Allan Dickerman, assistant professor at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, Brunner is working toward characterizing the genes involved in wood formation in poplar trees. The overall goal is to improve the quality and quantity of wood as a feedstock for biofuels production.

Over the next several years, Brunner and her colleagues will identify the key interactions among hundreds of proteins associated with wood formation in true poplars, which include species commonly known as aspens and cottonwoods, forming the basis for the creation of transgenic (pertaining to the artificial introduction of DNA from another organism) poplar plants. Studying the manipulated trees will allow the researchers to learn more about the basic biology of wood formation and establish whether such genetic modifications can increase the value of poplar as a biofuels feedstock (any organic matter that is available on a renewable basis for conversion to biofuels).

“This project illustrates the power and utility of poplar research. We would not be able to carry out this project with any other tree species,” Brunner stated. “Poplar has characteristics that make it a top candidate for dedicated biomass feedstock production and it is the premier model tree system for fundamental research.”

According to Beers, the project’s lead investigator, the potential benefits include decreasing oil imports, reducing the use of food crops for ethanol production, and increasing options for American farmers. Because some cultivars of poplar are more tolerant of conditions such as drought and poor soils, they can be grown on marginal lands unsuitable for food crops. Farmers will thus have the option to grow bioenergy crops in addition to food crops.

Brunner’s work is funded by a $1.5 million Plant Feedstock Genomics for Bioenergy grant from the U.S. departments of Energy and Agriculture. Virginia Tech is one of 11 universities that received funding to conduct research to accelerate bioenergy crop production and spur economic impact.

“As someone who has studied poplars for over 18 years, it is especially rewarding to have seen the poplar system develop to the point where we can discover molecular mechanisms of gene and protein activity and translate this information to generate desirable traits in trees,” said Brunner.

Brunner, who joined the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation in 2005, has dedicated much of her time to university research. This past April, she received a Faculty Research Award from Gamma Sigma Delta, an international honor society dedicated to recognizing the accomplishments of students, faculty members, or industry leaders who work in agriculture.