Researchers in Canada say they've successfully engineered trees genetically to make it easier and quicker to break them down to produce products like paper and even biofuel.
The breakthrough means paper and fuel production will consume less energy, require fewer chemicals, and result in less environmental pollution, scientists at the University of British Columbia say.
They focused their research on a polymer found in the cell walls of most plants, one of which must be removed for paper or fuel production. Currently, that process demands the use of chemicals and energy and creates polluting waste products.
"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," wood science Professor Shawn Mansfield says.
Using genetic engineering, the researchers have successfully modified the lignin, making breaking it down easier without significantly affecting a tree's strength, they reported in the journal Science.
Previous efforts to tackle the problem by using gene suppression to reduce the amount of lignin often stunted tree growth and produced a susceptibility to snow, wind, snow, pathogens and pests, they said.
Lignin contains bonds that are difficult to break down, so the researchers, working with U.S. colleagues, used genetic engineering to create bonds in the lignin backbone that can be broken down more easily and with smaller amounts of chemicals.
"It is truly a unique achievement to design trees for deconstruction while maintaining their growth potential and strength," Mansfield says.
"We're designing trees to be processed with less energy and fewer chemicals, and ultimately recovering more wood carbohydrate than is currently possible," he says.
In addition the lignin, which is useful in other applications such as insulation, adhesives and additives for paint, can be recovered from the trees more effectively, the researchers say.
Genetic modification techniques used in the study might also be applied to other plants, including grasses, to produce biofuel to replace or at least augment petroleum supplies, while trees that have been genetically modified could also be planted as an agricultural biofuel crop, they say.
"We're a petroleum-reliant society," Mansfield says. "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."