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Genetically Modified Trees Yield Paper, Biofuels with Less Polluting and Chemical Cost

Apr 05, 2014 10:00 AM EDT
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In a move that may take renewable resources to the next level, researchers have genetically engineered trees that are easier to break down and use to produce paper and biofuel, according to the University of British Colombia.

The genetically engineered trees will require fewer chemicals and less energy to produce resources and breaking the trees down will produce fewer environmental pollutants, the researchers report.

The engineering comes down to a polymer known as lignin - comprising 20-25 percent of a tree - which has been modified to make it easier to break down.

Shawn Mansfield, a professor of wood science at the University of British Columbia, said lignin is "one of the largest impediments for the pulp and paper industry as well as the emerging biofuel industry."

Paper and biofuels made with traditional wood are generated at the expense of removing lignin through a process that "requires significant chemicals and energy and causes undesirable waste," the University of British Colombia said.

Mansfield and his collaborators were able to genetically modify the lignin so that it's easier to break down without adversely affecting the strength of the wood. Previous attempts to tackle this problem attempted to do so by suppressing genes, which resulted in the trees being susceptible to the elements or have stunted growth.

"We're designing trees to be processed with less energy and fewer chemicals, and ultimately recovering more wood carbohydrate than is currently possible," Mansfield said in a statement.

At the heart of their design is a genetic modification technique that makes lingin's strong bonds easier to break down chemically. The researchers report that the technique could also be used on grasses or other plants to convert them into a new kind of fuel to replace petroleum.

"We're a petroleum reliant society," Mansfield said. "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."

Mansfield and his collaborators, including researchers at the University of British Columbia, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Michigan State University, published their work in the journal Science.

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