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.
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