Published on April 16th, 2014 | by James Ayre


Genetically Engineered Trees For Greater Biofuel And Paper Production

April 16th, 2014 by  

Genetically engineered trees that can be more easily processed into biofuels and/or paper than normal trees have now been created by researchers at the University of British Columbia.

The new development should help to cut down on costs and/or the use of toxic chemicals in the paper and biofuel industries — thereby helping to reduce the pollution that typically accompanies these industries.

Shawn Mansfield. Researchers have genetically engineered trees that will be easier to break down to produce paper and biofuel, a breakthrough that will mean using fewer chemicals, less energy and creating fewer environmental pollutants. Image Credit: Martin Dee

Shawn Mansfield. Researchers have genetically engineered trees that will be easier to break down to produce paper and biofuel, a breakthrough that will mean using fewer chemicals, less energy and creating fewer environmental pollutants.
Image Credit: Martin Dee

“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,” states Shawn Mansfield, a professor of Wood Science at the University of British Columbia.

Lignin is one of the primary components of the cell walls of most types of plants, and is one of the main processing impediments during pulp, paper, and biofuel production. As it stands currently, the lignin must first be removed before further processing — something that requires a significant amount of toxic chemicals and energy.

That’s what the development of the new genetically engineered trees sets out to address — modifying the lignin in order to make it easier to break down, while avoiding degrading 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,” continues Mansfield. “It is truly a unique achievement to design trees for deconstruction while maintaining their growth potential and strength.”

The University of British Columbia provides more:

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 structure of lignin naturally contains ether bonds that are difficult to degrade. Researchers used genetic engineering to introduce ester bonds into the lignin backbone that are easier to break down chemically. The new technique means that the lignin may be recovered more effectively and used in other applications, such as adhesives, insolation, carbon fibres and paint additives.

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.

While there are of course a number of potential issues with the use of genetically engineered plants, the researchers think that such issues can be managed effectively via the deployment of a number of different strategies, including: 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.

“We’re a petroleum reliant society,” concludes Mansfield. “We rely on the same resource for everything from smartphones to gasoline. We need to diversify and take the pressure off of fossil fuels. Trees and plants have enormous potential to contribute carbon to our society.”

The new findings were just published in the journal Science.

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About the Author

's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.

  • As I was reading this story I kept thinking that GE trees are a bad idea. Just like other GMO’s cross pollination can open a can of worms that we don’t really want to. I was thinking that hemp, for a whole host of reasons, was a much better choice. When I got to the comment section I found myself late to the party… :-}

    • Gwennedd

      I happen to agree with you. GE trees? WTF! Not a smart idea, but likely is the product of research paid for by huge forestry interests, seeing as how it was developed on the west coast where forestry is a main source of industry.

      How about we try to use less paper and wood products. How much is thrown away during and after construction? From my own home renovations…lots.. mostly end cuts that could be recycled. I saved what I could for future small projects, but there was still a lot of scrap. I would also love to see someone come up with an alternative to press board, too. The stuff is crap!

      And yes, hemp is a far better alternative. It’s far more useful for such a variety of things and grows so fast. Same with bamboo.

    • Hipepa

      Late to the party too. The industry is heavily capitalized in the idea that wood=paper. There has to be a solid business case made for r&d into alternative paper sources. Hemp has it’s own pulp processing challenges but is completely doable. This is the wrong way for the industry to go. Not surprised by the old school mentality, sadly.

  • patrik

    isn’t anyone considering hemp for large scale paper production? Why is this still hippie territory? Very disappointing

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