Genetically Modified Trees Could Clean Up Paper Industry

By Carl Engelking | April 4, 2014 1:28 pm


Papermaking is a notoriously messy — and smelly — affair. Roughly 200 chemicals are used to break down tree fiber so it can be used to make the myriad paper products we use daily. But researchers have now genetically engineered trees that are easier to break down, which could reduce the amount of chemicals and energy used in the papermaking process.

The archenemy of the papermaker is lignin, which is a complex polymer found in the cell walls of most plants. Currently, lignin must be removed from wood through an expensive chemical- and energy-intensive procedure known as the kraft process. But with genetic engineering scientists can instead chemically modify the lignin to make it easier to break down — and they have demonstrated the ability to do so without adversely affecting the tree’s strength.

Laying Waste to Lignin

Researchers began by inserting genes that code for ferulic acid into young poplar trees. The trees incorporated the acid into their lignin, creating weak points in the chemical structure.

As a result, the lignin from these trees easily breaks apart when treated with a mild base at temperatures of 100 degrees C. Additionally, the trees maintained their growth potential and strength, researchers reported this week in Science.

Researchers said in a news release Thursday that their next step is to see if the technique works on other plants — namely plants used to create biofuels. Finding an easier way to break down lignin could save biofuel makers big bucks, and make the alternative fuels more competitive with petroleum.


Photo credit:  lorenzobovi/Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, top posts
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  • Leonardo Mar

    I don’t like when humans try to modify nature. Can’t we just leave the nature do it’s course? After all, we live thanks to a very fragile balance :)

    • Emma Snow

      As humans we are harming the plant, reducing nature’s natural resources. By genetically modifying trees, we are essentially saving earth. We won’t be cutting down forestry for paper products due to the harvesting of these new GE trees.

      • Walrus Alt

        “We won’t be cutting down forestry for paper products” – We’re not doing this right now either. Most paper comes from tree farms. GE will simply make them more efficient.

    • Mackinz

      Like when we turned wolves into pomeranians, weeds into lettuce and started building houses with fences?

      If you are alright with all of the massive changes to nature which mankind has already propagated, and not okay with minor changes on top of that… well, there isn’t much to say really.

      • PhilMcCraken

        This is why the term “Genetically modified Organism” is too broad. While it might be OK to keep hybridizing corn and lettuce into an edible plant, it’s wholly another to modify corn to the point where the only corn left is whatever Monsanto has to sell.

  • gskibum

    That is some mighty fine science-by-Gish-Gallop you’ve got there.

  • Herne Webber

    Or, we could just use hemp for paper, which is clearly superior without genetic modification. If I understand this article right, if you put these trees somewhere it gets really hot (obviously not boiling!), in a basic soil, it could have weaker wood. What are the effects if these poplars cross with wild species, as they tend to do? Other names for poplars are Aspen and Cottonwood. Do you want already soft woods made softer? I am for sane science, including some gene modification, but we are moving away from needing paper, and we already have a less-strong lignin source in hemp, so…. somebody is just feathering their nest with research dollars that will end up going nowhere. Would you rent a gold Jalope when you could own a new, efficient car?

  • Anonymous Me

    Perhaps GMO trees would help with that, however they are now trying to modify not just crops, but grass, trees and insects. Where will it end? Once released into the environment we can’t stop them from cross pollinating or cross breeding. Isn’t it clear from the WHO saying that the Roundup used on GMO crops is a probable carcinogen, that is now in our soil, water, rain and breastmilk that we should ban all GMO’s and Roundup? Only 2% of the world’s water is drinkable, then we fill it with a known carcinogen? Why is no one putting a stop to this?


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