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The BESC research team showed that a key gene can reduce lignin content in plant cells by up to 50 percent in poplar (Populus trichocarpa) and plants carrying this variant of the lignin-producing gene showed an increase in sugar release of up to 280 percent. This increase in sugar release resulted in a 250 percent increase in ethanol yield from the biomass that was not chemically or mechanically pretreated.   

Technology Advancement

ORNL researchers also applied the same gene altering method used on poplar trees to Medicago truncatula, a model system used for alfalfa, which is widely used for animal feed. This resulted in a 25 percent reduction in lignin and a 250 percent increase in flavonoid content. Industry believes this innovation could have a dramatic impact on forage crops by reducing the lignin barrier for improved digestibility while also improving the nutritional quality with increased flavonoids.  


ORNL continues to collaborate with both GreenWood Resources and Forage Genetics International as the companies conduct field studies over the next few years to validate this novel plant system in the companies’ commercial varieties. ORNL’s Technology Innovation Program (TIP) support efforts at ORNL to collaborate with each company during their field trials to provide an accelerated timeline to develop this innovation for the marketplace.


The BESC team led by Dr. Wellington Muchero at ORNL identified the key gene for this innovation.

Genetic Regulation in Plants for Improved Biofuels and Forage Crops

Oak Ridge National Laboratory |
University of Tennessee (Knoxville TN)
West Virginia University (Morgantown WV)
Publication Date
Mar 1, 2019
Agreement Type