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How to Make Trees Grow Bigger, Faster in the Face of Climate Change

Apr 16, 2015 02:30 PM EDT

(Photo : Pixabay)

Scientists have discovered a way to make trees grow bigger and faster which, in the face of climate change, could help increase the supply of renewable resources, according to new research.

"The rate at which trees grow is determined by the rate of cell division in the stem. We have identified two genes that are able to drive cell division in the stem and so override the normal growth pattern," Professor Simon Turner from The University of Manchester, who led the study, explained in a news release.

"Although, this needs be tested in the field," he added, "this discovery paves the way for generating trees that grow more quickly and so will contribute to meeting the needs for increased plant biomass as a renewable source of biofuels, chemicals and materials while minimizing further CO2 release into the atmosphere."

The genes, called PXY and CLE, control the growth of a tree trunk. The researchers decided to manipulate these genes in poplar trees to find out whether they could cause them to grow larger and more quickly than usual. When overexpressed, the genes become more active than normal, causing the trees to grow twice as fast as normal - not to mention they were taller, wider and had more leaves. (Scroll to read on...)

This image shows a section of a poplar tree that has had its genes modified so cells divide quicker.
(Photo : Professor Simon Turner) This image shows a section of a poplar tree that has had its genes modified so cells divide quicker.

As part of photosynthesis - a natural cycle that helps plants convert sunlight into energy - trees capture carbon dioxide (CO2) in order to help them grow. Just from this process alone, scientists estimate that living plants absorb as much as 16 percent more of the harmful greenhouse gas than previously thought.

By making trees grow faster and bigger, it could add more carbon-capturing plants to the world.

These new findings, published in the journal Current Biology, not only have the potential to increase biomass supplies for the growing biofuel and industrial biotechnology sectors, but the discovery could also help plants themselves deal with the environmental consequences of climate change.

"Our work offers the possibility we may be able to maintain a fast growth rate even in the face of adverse and changeable environmental conditions that all plants are likely to be faced with," Turner said.

For example, with warming temperatures (2014 was the warmest year on record), drought is currently among the top plant stressors, affecting their growth and development. And it turns out that plants are ill-prepared for dealing with this lack of water - more so than scientists thought.

"Most plants, including crops, respond to adverse environmental conditions with lower growth rates that result in correspondingly lower yields. Understanding how the plants respond to environmental signals and to what extent we are able to manipulate them to override these signals is likely to be very important for continued improvements to crop performance," Turner explained. "In [the] future it may be possible that manipulating the expression of the PXY and CLE genes can override environmental signals that normally alter plant growth."

But what good is it to make bigger, faster-growing trees if we are just going to cut them down? Deforestation is a major issue today, and contributes about 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate change. What's more, while scientists often focus on the harmful effects of greenhouse gas emissions, tropical deforestation actually drives global changes that are just as costly as carbon pollution.

The United Nations has even pledged to end deforestation by 2030, which is crucial if we want more of these natural carbon-capturers to help save us from climate change.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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