Transgenic down-regulation of the Pt4CL1 gene family encoding 4-coumarate:coenzyme A ligase (4CL) has been reported as a means for reducing lignin content in cell walls and increasing overall growth rates, thereby improving feedstock quality for paper and bioethanol production. Using hybrid poplar (Populus tremula x Populus alba), we applied this strategy and examined field-grown transformants for both effects on wood biochemistry and tree productivity. The reductions in lignin contents obtained correlated well with 4CL RNA expression, with a sharp decrease in lignin amount being observed for RNA expression below approximately 50% of the nontransgenic control. Relatively small lignin reductions of approximately 10% were associated with reduced productivity, decreased wood syringyl/guaiacyl lignin monomer ratios, and a small increase in the level of incorporation of H-monomers (p-hydroxyphenyl) into cell walls. Transgenic events with less than approximately 50% 4CL RNA expression were characterized by patches of reddish-brown discolored wood that had approximately twice the extractive content of controls (largely complex polyphenolics). There was no evidence that substantially reduced lignin contents increased growth rates or saccharification potential. Our results suggest that the capacity for lignin reduction is limited; below a threshold, large changes in wood chemistry and plant metabolism were observed that adversely affected productivity and potential ethanol yield. They also underline the importance of field studies to obtain physiologically meaningful results and to support technology development with transgenic trees.