Building Better Bioenergy Trees

By Jennifer Donovan

Chandrashekhar Joshi’s insights into how trees make cellulose earned him the 2011 Research Award.

Cellulose is made up of chains of well-organized glucose molecules, and scientists would love to turn those glucose molecules into biofuel. But it is hard to break cellulose apart into glucose units, a first step in converting it into fuels like ethanol via fermentation. So if trees are to become the source of cellulosic biofuels for the future, someone needs to solve this cellulose breakdown problem.

Cellulose makes up about half the mass of wood cell walls, so why not develop and grow designer trees with cell walls that are easier to break down and turn into biofuel?

That’s Chandrashekhar Joshi’s goal. But the first step is to figure out how trees make cellulose in the first place. “If we discover how plants make it, we can later break it,” says the professor of plant molecular genetics in Michigan Tech’s School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science.

For his work on cellulose synthesis in bioenergy trees, Joshi was named winner of Michigan Tech’s 2011 Research Award.

“We have been unraveling the process of cellulose synthesis in trees for over a decade now,” Joshi said. “We hope that one day sustainable, renewable, and improved bioenergy and other useful products will result from our research.”

Early in 2011, Joshi and colleagues published a groundbreaking paper in the British journal Molecular Plant that demonstrated for the first time the paramount role cellulose synthesis plays in the life of trees. Trees need cellulose to stand up and grow upward. The Joshi lab showed that suppressing just one gene for cellulose synthesis in aspen trees turns those trees into creepers or vines that cannot grow over a foot in height. The cellulose in the transgenic aspen trees is reduced by more than 75 percent. Yet they survive and continue to produce wood that is rich in lignin and xylan, polymers that hinder biofuel conversion and serve as alternative feedstock for biofuel.

Among those recommending Joshi for the award was Stephen P. DiFazio, of West Virginia University. “His work is of fundamental importance in the burgeoning biofuels field, and his expertise is widely respected in the scientific community and beyond,” DiFazio said.

Joshi has published 67 peer-reviewed papers, authored over 100 presentations, contributed to four patents, coedited two books on bioenergy crops, and received more than $6.5 million in research funding over the past fifteen years. “Michigan Tech is the place where dreams of building a better future really come true,” he said.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.