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Poplars in biotechnology research

H. Marchadier and P. Sigaud

Héliette Marchadier, a recent university graduate, prepared this contribution while volunteering for six months in the Forest Resources Development Service, FAO Forestry Department, Rome, prior to continuing her studies.
Pierre Sigaud is Forestry Officer (Forest Genetic Resources) in the Forest Resources Development Service, FAO Forestry Department, Rome.

Populus is the most widely used forest tree genus in genetic modification studies and the second most used in biotechnology research overall.

Biotechnology encompasses a wide range of scientific techniques that use living organisms or parts of them. Modern biotechnologies currently used in forestry fall broadly into three categories:

  • those based on molecular markers, used, for example, to quantify genetic diversity between populations and individual trees, to identify parts of the genetic material that are unique to each individual (“fingerprinting”) and to locate genes responsible for traits of economic importance;
  • those that enhance vegetative propagation and support large-scale production of uniform materials (micropropagation and tissue culture);
  • genetic modification of forest trees.

Poplar is regarded as a model tree in forest genetics and biotechnology studies in temperate and boreal regions because of its rapid growth, its vegetative propagation capacities (many varieties can be reproduced easily by cloning), experience gained in conventional poplar breeding and cultivation, and its known genomic structure which offers genetic engineering opportunities. The first forest tree species for which the complete genome was sequenced was a poplar; this work was completed in 2004 (Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 2004; JGI, 2004).

Between 1994 and 2004 Populus was the second most used tree genus in biotechnology studies in general (after Pinus) and by far the most used in genetic modification worldwide.

Poplar is the only genetically modified (GM) forest tree that has been commercially deployed; the State Forestry Administration of China approved commercial plantation of GM poplars in 2002, and by the end of that year more than 1.4 million insect-resistant GM poplars had reportedly been planted in China.

The graphics and statistics in this article are all based on the number of activities (ongoing or concluded, and irrespective of cost, project size or area of trials) reported in the international scientific literature, including data sets, published from 1994 to 2004 (FAO, 2004).

Categories of biotechnology reported in poplars

Poplar research in biotechnology (including genetic modification) by country

Genetic modification research by main tree genera

Main traits addressed when genes are transformed for a specific purpose

Reported genetic modification activities in poplars by country

Field testing of poplar biotechnology worldwide


FAO. 2004. Preliminary review of biotechnology in forestry, including genetic modification. Forest Genetic Resources Working Paper FGR/59E. Rome. Available at:

Oak Ridge National Laboratory. 2004. International Populus Genome Consortium – creating a genetic resource for the plant science community. Available at:

Joint Genome Institute (JGI). 2004. Populus trichocarpa v.1.0. Available at:

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