Genetically engineered trees can clean up paper industry

With the application of the new technique, residue from trees can also be used in making adhesives, carbon fibers and paint additives

By Vani Manocha
Published: Friday 11 April 2014

UBC researchers have developed a way to modify a polymer in wood to that makes it easier to break down. Photo: Notneb82, Wikimedia Commons

After brinjal, tomatoes, cotton, wheat and other crops, it is now time for the world to see genetically modified trees. These engineered trees can make paper making, which for years has been a smelly and tedious process, a smooth affair.

According to researchers from the University of British Columbia, they have engineered trees that are easier to break down, unlike the normal ones which require about 200 chemicals to break down the fiber to produce pulp. The new trees will require fewer chemicals and less energy to produce resources and the process will emit fewer environmental pollutants, says a report published in Science.

Papermaking is not that easy

“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, professor of Wood Science at the University of British Columbia. The polymer makes up a substantial portion of the cell wall and its removal requires significant chemicals and energy.
Genetic engineering will allow researchers to modify this polymer, thereby making it easier to be broken down. With the application of the new technique, lignin can be used in other applications, such as adhesives, insulation, carbon fibers and paint additives.

A media release by the university also said that researchers had previously tried to tackle this problem by reducing the quantity of lignin in trees by suppressing genes. But, that often resulted in trees that were stunted in growth or were susceptible to wind, snow, pests and pathogens. The report also suggests that 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.

The study, a collaboration between researchers at the University of British Columbia, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Michigan State University, has been funded by Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.

Report: GM crops: global socio-economic and environmental impacts 1996-2011

Workshop Proceedings: Socio-economic impacts of genetically modified (GM) crops

Policy Paper: Biosafety assurance for GM food crops in India

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