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.
“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.”
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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.