Associate Professor Amy Brunner is using a $1.4 million grant to investigate the genetic regulatory networks that will allow an important bioenergy crop to be bred to grow in marginal soils and climates. Populus, commonly known as cottonwoods and aspens, is being grown for bioenergy because it produces a significant amount of biomass, which can be converted in to liquid fuels such as ethanol, in only two years.

“The goal is to develop the species so it will not become dormant in conditions, such as high temperature, drought, or marginal soil nutrients, that would stress other crops,” Brunner said. “We don’t want biomass production to compete with food production. The aim is to minimize inputs, develop varieties that grow in different environments, and maximize biomass production.”

Brunner and Associate Professor Jason Holliday are experimenting with the FT2 gene, which regulates vegetative growth, to understand growth and dormancy transitions. “We will identify specific control points that can be manipulated to maximize growth in different environments,” Brunner explained. “If we understand the network, we can use that in a breeding program for optimal biomass production in specific climates and on marginal lands.”

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