Oak Ridge National Laboratory


News Release

Media Contact: Ron Walli (wallira@ornl.gov)
Communications and External Relations


Sequencing of poplar genome giant step for research community

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., Sep. 21, 2004 — Sequencing the Populus genome represents a huge international success, and scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory expect it to sprout big gains in research involving alternative energy production and environmental restoration.

Completion of the sequencing and assembly of the poplar genome, announced today by the Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute, is significant because it will allow scientists to lay out a molecular road map that shows them how trees grow. That knowledge can lead to major progress on a number of levels.

"By helping to lead this international collaboration to sequence the first tree genome, DOE once again is pioneering discovery-class science that promises to yield important societal benefits," said Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham. "The poplar genome sequence will provide researchers with a critical resource to develop faster growing trees, trees that produce more biomass that can be converted to fuels, and trees that can sequester more carbon from the atmosphere or be used to clean up waste sites.

"Just as DOE earlier played a leading role in mapping the human genome and making possible advances in human health, we now are pleased to build on that success and help deliver the poplar's parts list -- and the clean energy and cleaner environment that scientists will produce using the genetic sequence of the poplar in the future."

By planting and harvesting fast-growing poplars, the United States could produce enough ethanol to significantly supplement fossil fuels used for transportation, said ORNL's Gerald Tuskan, who coordinated the massive sequencing effort for DOE.

With a genome size of about 480 million base pair and 32,000 genes, it is the most complex genome to be sequenced and assembled by a single public sequencing facility. Scientists around the world are excited about this effort and what the future holds not only for production of ethanol and paper products, but in other areas as well.

"Access to the genetic blueprint of a tree will make it possible to develop the next generation of forests with novel wood properties, improved pest resistance and increased capacity to capture greenhouse gases" said Brian Ellis, associate director of the University of British Columbia's Biotechnology Laboratory. The benefits, however, do not end there.

"Sequencing the first tree genome creates a tremendous resource as scientists seek to better understand the basic biological processes that enable trees to survive, and even thrive, over long periods of time," ORNL's Stan Wullschleger said.

In addition to payoffs in the area of biofuels, DOE expects the effort to lead to a better understanding of global climate change, carbon management, ecosystem responses to carbon dioxide changes and phytoremediation, which involves using plants to clean contaminated sites. Through a better understanding of the basic biology that goes into trees, researchers expect to make great strides in understanding perennial plant growth and function.

Researchers also believe the effort will provide clues for molecular research on tree-specific questions like dormancy, development of secondary cambium (which produces wood and bark), juvenile-mature phase change or long-term host-pest interactions.

Key to the success of the project, which took two years, was the Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, Calif., and the cooperation of institutions around the world.

"DOE's sequencing capacity at the Joint Genome Institute was pivotal in the Populus genome effort," Wullschleger said. "Its high-throughput capabilities for DNA analysis are tremendous. So, too, were contributions from Genome Canada-University of British Columbia, the Umea Plant Science Centre in Sweden and others."

DOE chose to sequence poplar because the species has a relatively small genome, it is easily grown and it is economically and ecologically an important species worldwide. The next effort involves filling in the gaps among the assembled fragments and the daunting task of assigning function to the 32,000 genes.

Also contributing to the effort from ORNL were Steve DiFazio and Lee Gunter of the Environmental Sciences Division and Frank Larimer of the Life Sciences Division. Other organizations involved in the project were the Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology in Belgium and institutions in Korea, Finland, Austria, Germany and Israel.

The Biological and Environmental Research program in DOE's Office of Science has provided a total of $12 million for the poplar initiative -- $8 million for sequencing and $4 million for associated research. ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for the Department of Energy.



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