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FuturaGene to Develop Enhanced Poplar for the Chinese Biofuel and Biopower Markets

Israel-based FuturaGene PLC, a plant genetic researcher and developer for global forestry, biofuel and agricultural markets, has entered into an agreement with the Chinese Academy of Forestry (CAF) to develop new enhanced poplar variants that feature increased yield, processability and abiotic stress characteristics for the Chinese domestic market. This is the second collaboration between FuturaGene and CAF; the first agreement was signed in 2007 and aimed at improving yield processability and disease resistance of eucalyptus trees.

Futuragene will provide proprietary genes and technical assistance to Professor Liwang Qi, Chief Expert on Silva Genetics at CAF in Beijing. The program aims at improving yield, drought and salt tolerance of short-rotation poplar for the biofuel and biomass markets.

Woodchip from poplar produced in sustainable, renewable plantations provides a carbon-neutral fuel source for co-firing coal-burning power stations, significantly reducing environmental damage. Poplar is also being developed for the production of second generation cellulose-to-ethanol biofuel. The rapid growth rate of poplar makes this species an ideal candidate for renewable biomass for energy production reducing the need to use food crops as a raw material for liquid fuel production.

In addition to development work, field trials and regulatory authorization will be carried out by CAF. Both parties will have joint rights for commercialization of varieties produced under the agreement in the Chinese domestic market.

We are delighted to be extending our relationship with CAF, following the productive start to our initial eucalyptus-focused collaboration agreement. This agreement on poplar is strategically important to our global initiatives in the development of this crop for biopower and second generation biofuel production.

Poplar is widely used in China as a structural wood, for fibre and to reverse desertification. There is increasing interest in utilizing poplar as a carbon neutral biomass for renewable energy. As China is currently one of the largest users of coal, the introduction of poplar as an energy source for combustion, potentially has a substantial global environmental benefit.

—Dr. Stanley Hirsch, Group Chief Executive of FuturaGene

Poplars are one of the most commonly planted species of tree in China, and is used for plywood, veneer and structural timber. As this species is fast growing, it is finding increasing use in reafforestation of deserts. Poplar plantations extended over 4.3 million hectares in 2007 (FAO). According to GMO-Safety (a biosafety research portal run on behalf of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research), China intends to reforest an area of approximately 17 million hectares by the year 2012. In addition, adoption of woodchip co-firing programs for coal fired power stations in China could significantly add to the demand for poplar wood.

The Chinese Academy of Forestry (CAF) was founded in 1958 based on the former Central Research Institute of Forestry established in 1953. Its present president is Chen Tong'ai. The academy now has more than 4,400 staff, including researchers, engineers, and technicians, involved in more than 150 disciplines and is authorized advanced academic degrees in a number of fields. Having research offices and satellite institutions in a number of sites around China as well as more than 60,000 hectares of experimental lands, CAF is the mainstream of tree development in China.

FuturaGene Forest Biotech and Biofuel work. FuturaGene has a growing intellectual property portfolio that addresses environmental stresses in plants such as salinity, drought, cold, and heat and protects its developments on the modification of plant cell walls to enhance plant growth rates, yield and processability of plant fiber. For the latter work—the modification of plant cell wall attributes—FuturaGene has progressed beyond gene discovery and is able to effect changes in plant cell walls using patented cellulose binding domain (cbd) genes, cel1 genes (cel1) and novel cell wall polysaccharide modifying genes.

  • The cbd gene. Introducing the cbd gene into plants enables the expression of CBD (cellulose binding domain) proteins within the cell wall of plant tissue. CBD proteins bind to newly synthesized cellulose fibers in plant cell walls. This results in an increased rate of synthesis of the cellulose polymer, improved polymer qualities and enhanced biomass. The increased rate of cellulose synthesis in the cell wall leads to enhanced cellulose production, greater biomass at the plant level, improved fiber properties and may enhance resistance to biotic and abiotic stress.

    FuturaGene has inserted cbd genes into hardwood forestry species and has demonstrated substantial volume increases with improvements in wood density and fiber properties.

  • The cel1 gene The cel1 gene is the endo-1,4-ß-glucanase gene from Arabidopsis thaliana, a model organism in plant biology. Futuragene utilizes cel1, the CEL1 protein and the cel1 promoter to modify a number of plant properties.

    Cellulose chains in the cell walls of plant tissue are cross-linked to one another by the molecule xyloglucan. The CEL1 protein breaks cellulose-xyloglucan links. During the processes of cell elongation and division, native CEL1-like proteins in the plant break cellulose-xyloglucan links, allowing cellulose chains to move freely relative to one another. By transforming the cel1 gene into plants, FuturaGene causes the cells to elongate more freely and rapidly, resulting in entire plants that reach development stages faster and grow more rapidly.

    In plants, the cel1 promoter switches genes on in the elongation zones only. It can be used to control cel1 and cbd genes or other effector genes and enable their expression in elongating cells. Once plant stem cells have begun differentiating into separate tissue structures, it is crucial that genes are appropriately switched on and off. Our ability to selectively express novel genes in the appropriate tissues at the appropriate times is fundamental to our success in modulating plant growth properties.

  • The company is working actively with novel cell wall polysaccharide modifying enzymes which change the composition of the plant cell wall. These polysaccharides dissolve in preprocessing of cellulosic biomass, allowing enhanced penetration of chemicals and enzymes to the cellulose and hemicellulose fractions, thus increasing the efficiency of deconstruction for bioethanol production.


Henry Gibson

Coppicing, with several stems from a root system, might increase productivity greatly as the root system does not have to be regrown. But raw trees should not be used as fuel anywhere in a future society and need not be. ..HG..

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