It is now well recognized that burning fossil fuels and deforestation are major contributors to climate change, and that plant biomass can serve as an alternative renewable and carbon-neutral raw material for the production of bio-energy. Fast-growing perennial grasses such as Miscanthus, and trees such as poplar and willow, have great potential to become major energy crops for the future. In the production of bio-ethanol, lignin is the main limiting factor because it limits the accessibility of the cellulose microfibrils to enzymatic depolymerization.
There is enormous potential for improving plant cell walls by exploiting the available genetic resources and by genetic modification. This potential has remained largely unexplored. The major long-term goal of the Bio-energy group is to understand, through systems biology, the biosynthesis, polymerization and structure of lignin, and how lignin biosynthesis integrates into plant metabolism and development. This will provide the fundamental knowledge that is necessary to breed for, or engineer, plant cell walls that are easier to convert to bio-ethanol. Both Arabidopsis and poplar are used as model systems.
The genetic resources available in Populus, such as the availability of the genome sequence, mapping pedigrees and association populations, make it possible to approach the bio-energy problem also from a genetics point of view, and immediately in a target bio-energy crop.
Background and history of GM poplar field trial
Check out the 'Poplar Files (pdf 2MB)' for background information and a short history of the experiment with GM poplar as a source for second generation bio-fuels.
Engineering traditional monolignols out of lignin by concomitant F5H1-up- and COMT-down-regulation in ArabidopsisVanholme R, Ralph J, Akiyama T, Lu F, Pazo J, Kim H, Christensen j, Van Reusel B, Storme V, De Rycke R, Rohde A, Morreel K, Boerjan WPLANT JOURNAL, 64, 885-897, 2010 Downregulation of cinnamoyl-coenzyme a reductase in poplar: multiple-level phenotyping reveals effects on cell wall polymer metabolism and structureLeplé J, Dauwe R, Morreel K, Storme V, Lapierre C, Pollet B, Naumann A, Kang K, Kim H, Ruel K, Lefebvre a, Joseleau J, Grima-Pettenati J, De Rycke R, Andersson-Gunneras S, Erban A, Fehrle I, Petit-Conil M, Kopka J, Polle A, Messens E, Sundberg B, Mansfield S, Ralph J, Pilate G, Boerjan WPLANT CELL, 19, 3669-91, 2007 Genetical metabolomics of flavonoid biosynthesis in Populus: a case studyMorreel K, Goeminne G, Storme V, Sterck L, Ralph J, Coppieters W, Breyne P, Steenackers M, Georges M, Messens E, Boerjan WPLANT JOURNAL, 47, 224-37, 2006
30/12/2013 - The results of a field trial with genetically modified poplar trees in Zwijnaarde, Belgium, shows that the wood of lignin modified poplar trees can be converted into sugars in a more efficient way.
15/08/2013 - An international collaboration of plant scientists identified a new gene in the biosynthetic pathway of lignin, a major component of plant secondary cell walls that limits the conversion of biomass to energy.
01/02/2013 - VIB has asked the federal government for a license to perform a second field trial with genetically modified poplars.
19/05/2011 - The yield of bio-ethanol from the wood of GM poplar trees from a VIB field trial is up to 81% higher than non-modified poplars VIB-UGent researcher Wout Boerjan presented these results at the international conference "Bioenergy Trees in Nancy, France.
15/01/2010 - Wout Boerjan was named Forest Biotechnologist of the Year. IFB is recognizing Boerjan’s work. The jury also gave special consideration to the field proof with genetically modified poplars.
06/05/2009 - This afternoon, Flanders’ Minister of Economy, Enterprise, Science, Innovation and Foreign Trade, Patricia Ceysens, planted the first genetically modified poplar in Flanders.
23/02/2009 - After an initial negative decision in May 2008, VIB recently received an authorisation to field test its genetically modified poplar trees in Belgium. VIB had appealed the negative decision at the Council of State, which suspended the refusal.
30/12/2008 - The Council of State has consigned the federal ministers Magnette and Onkelinx’ decision to refuse a permit for a field trial with genetically modified poplars to the wastepaper basket.
08/12/2008 - The Netherlands Commission on Genetic Modification (COGEM) has issued a positive opinion on a field trial with genetically modified poplars from the Flemish research institute VIB.
24/09/2008 - VIB gains international recognition for its poplar research program thanks to a considerable financial injection of 1.6 million dollar from Stanford University, the world-renowned American research university.
25/07/2008 - The Flanders Institute for Biotechnology, VIB, submitted a request to the Council of State on July 23, 2008, to suspend and quash the decision of Ministers Magnette and Onkelinx denying its approval for a field test of genetically modified poplars.
27/05/2008 - VIB has responded in disbelief to the rejection by the federal government of its request to carry out a field trial with genetically modified poplars. The government has thus disregarded the authoritative judgement of the Biosafety Advisory Council.
15/09/2006 - Scientists has succeeded in unraveling the first tree genome − that of the poplar. Moreover, their research indicates that the poplar has about 45,000 genes
21/09/2004 - An international consortium, including VIB researchers, has succeeded in deciphering the first tree genome, that of the poplar. That is an important step in the research to make trees grow more quickly, or to make them easier to process into paper.
Ph.D.: Univ. of Ghent, Ghent, Belgium, 1993
VIB Group leader since 1996
Associate Professor since 2003