Register for an account

X

Enter your name and email address below.

Your email address is used to log in and will not be shared or sold. Read our privacy policy.

X

Website access code

Enter your access code into the form field below.

If you are a Zinio, Nook, Kindle, Apple, or Google Play subscriber, you can enter your website access code to gain subscriber access. Your website access code is located in the upper right corner of the Table of Contents page of your digital edition.

Environment

Genetically Modified Trees Could Clean Up Paper Industry

D-briefBy Carl EngelkingApril 4, 2014 10:28 PM

Newsletter

Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

shutterstock_181601183.jpg

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

2 Free Articles Left

Want it all? Get unlimited access when you subscribe.

Subscribe

Already a subscriber? Register or Log In

Want unlimited access?

Subscribe today and save 70%

Subscribe

Already a subscriber? Register or Log In