Canadian researchers have genetically engineered trees that will be easier to break down to produce paper and biofuel.
Their breakthrough will mean fewer chemicals and less energy are used in paper and biofuel production and fewer environmental pollutants are created.
The research findings were announced in a university media statement.
“One of the largest impediments for the pulp and paper industry as well as the emerging biofuel industry is a polymer found in wood known as lignin,” says Shawn Mansfield, a professor of Wood Science at the University of British Columbia.
Lignin makes up a substantial portion of the cell wall of most plants and is a processing impediment for pulp, paper and biofuel.
The lignin must be removed in a process that requires significant chemicals and energy and causes undesirable waste.
The researchers used genetic engineering to modify the lignin, making it easier to break down without adversely affecting the tree’s strength.
“We’re designing trees to be processed with less energy and fewer chemicals, and ultimately recovering more wood carbohydrate than is currently possible,” says Mansfield.
Researchers had previously tried to tackle this problem by reducing the quantity of lignin in trees by suppressing genes, which often resulted in trees that are stunted in growth or were susceptible to wind, snow, pests and pathogens.
The study, a collaboration between researchers at the University of British Columbia, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Michigan State University, is a collaboration funded by Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, was published today in Science.
The genetic modification strategy employed in this study could also be used on other plants like grasses to be used as a new kind of fuel to replace petroleum.
Genetic modification can be a contentious issue, but the University of British Columbia says there are ways to ensure that the genes do not spread to the forest. These techniques include growing crops away from native stands so cross-pollination isn’t possible; introducing genes to make both the male and female trees or plants sterile; and harvesting trees before they reach reproductive maturity.
In the future, genetically modified trees could be planted like an agricultural crop, and not in native forests.
Poplar is a potential energy crop for the biofuel industry because the tree grows quickly and on marginal farmland. Lignin makes up 20 to 25 per cent of the tree.