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Saturday, 15 December 2007

Modifying genetically trees

Aiming to turn trees into new energy sources, scientists are using a controversial genetic engineering process to change the composition of the wood. A major goal is to reduce the amount of lignin, a chemical compound that interferes with efforts to turn the tree’s cellulose into biofuels like ethanol.

Vincent L. Chiang, co-director of the forest biotechnology group at North Carolina State University, has developed transgenic trees with as little as half the lignin of their natural counterparts. “I think the transgenic tree with low lignin will contribute significantly to energy needs,” he said.

Environmentalists say such work can be risky, because lignin provides trees with structural stiffness and resistance to pests. Even some scientists working on altering wood composition acknowledge that reducing lignin too much could lead to wobbly, vulnerable trees.
People working in the field also acknowledge that they will face resistance from others who see trees as majestic symbols of pristine nature that should not be genetically altered like corn and soybeans.

Ethanol is mainly made from the starch in corn kernels. To increase the supply to make a dent in the nation’s energy picture, scientists are looking at using cellulose, a component of the cell wall in plants.

Proponents of using trees for this say they are good sources of cellulose and are also good at absorbing carbon dioxide, helping to fight global warming. Also, trees can be cut as needed rather than having to be harvested at a given time each year like a crop.

But the cellulose is covered by lignin, another component of the cell wall, making it difficult for enzymes to reach the cellulose and break it down into simple sugars that can be converted to ethanol. Pulp and paper companies break down lignin using acids and steam. Ethanol producers would have to do the same.

Trees that have less lignin might reduce or eliminate these steps. That could save at least 10 cents a gallon in ethanol costs, said Michael Ladisch, director of the Laboratory of Renewable Resources Engineering at Purdue.

Genetically modifying forest trees raises questions beyond those of crops. Trees can establish themselves in the wild, while corn would have trouble surviving without a farmer’s tender care.

A biologist, Claire Williams, said the wind could carry pollen from some trees like pines hundreds of miles, making it difficult to prevent a trait like reduced lignin from spreading to wild trees.

Dr. Williams, who works for the State Department but was interviewed while she was working at Duke, said the long life spans of trees made it “almost impossible to evaluate the long-term consequences of transgenic trees.”
source:NY TIMES
My comment: Guess what! I'm from the tree-lovers. From those that respect their beauty and strength. From those that consider them a bridge to our Mother Earth. And I hate that article. Yeah, let's modify anything that could produce money, to make even more money. To hell with the Nature. Why not pollute any organism on Earth if we'll have enough money to have an island and to populate it with the purest and nicest flora and fauna. Are you fucking crazy??? Leave the trees alone! You can't even modify corn properly, don't touch the trees!

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