The journal Science reported last week that an international group of scientists has published the first complete DNA sequence of a tree -- the poplar, to be exact. The event is noteworthy for a couple of reasons.
First of all, the poplar is a fast-growing, disease-resistant tree that is rich in carbohydrate cellulose -- a material that can be chemically converted into ethanol. Through a better understanding of its genetic makeup, it is widely believed that the sequencing of the poplar genome is the first step toward selectively breeding trees that can grow faster and taller and produce cellulose more efficiently.
This, in turn, suggests that the technology could be not only exploited by paper companies such as Weyerhaeuser
As it stands right now, even if all of the corn in the United States were diverted to ethanol production, the country would still fall short of the ambitious goal of reducing oil use by 30% by 2030. The poplar might therefore prove to be a very viable alternative.
The tree also has the added benefit of being a super-efficient absorber of carbon, thus making it a potential "carbon-neutral" producer of energy.
The technology is still a few years away from breeding the right kind of cellulose for biofuel, and a number of regulatory issues must be still be addressed, but the announcement is yet another indication that the promise of DNA sequencing may be beginning to take root in some unexpected areas.
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