Canadians rely on fossil fuels like petroleum to power their cars and heat their houses. However, fossil fuels are non-renewable and their use greatly contributes to the production of greenhouse gases (GHG), which are the key drivers of climate change. Governments and agencies around the world are looking for alternative energy sources to reduce the dependency on unsustainable fuel and minimize the negative environmental impact that comes with the fossil fuel use.

The Canadian government aims to reduce GHG emission with the Renewable Fuels Strategy, which mandates an average of 5% renewable fuel content in gasoline for the transportation sector. At the current consumption rate, this 5% is equivalent to almost 2-billion litres of renewable fuel (biofuel) per year for just small vehicles alone. However, the current rate of biofuel production is not enough to meet these demands. In order to meet the 5% mandate, a new source for producing biofuels needs to be developed. Woody plants and trees are expected to make up most of this new source.

The POPCAN team will use genomics to study poplar trees, which are Canada’s fastest-growing tree species and are widely-distributed across Canada. The research will focus on the wood traits of two common Canadian poplar species. In the same way that medical researchers are now able to identify genes that are significant to human diseases like cancer and diabetes, POPCAN will look for genes that are related to characteristics like rapid growth, tree size, or pest resistance. The researchers will selectively breed poplars with traits that would make the trees useful for the production of biofuels like ethanol. POPCAN aims to develop fast-growing trees that can grow in a variety of climates across Canada, and produce wood that can be more readily converted to biofuel while minimizing the ecological footprint.

Transforming the forest and agriculture crops to ethanol offers a long-term solution to reduce the world’s dependence on unsustainable fossil fuels; however, the land used for biofuels needs to be balanced with the land to produce food. POPCAN will collaborate with other researchers to investigate the impacts of poplar-biofuel plantations on land use and provide land-use guidelines, as well as make recommendations on economic and public policy to guide the development and poplar plantations in Canada. Through this research, POPCAN contributes to the establishment of a sustainable and renewable raw material that can be reliably and consistently produced in Canada.

Project Leaders
Carl Douglas (University of British Columbia)
Shawn Mansfield (University of British Columbia)

For more information on the project, please visit Genome BC.

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