Monday, January 10, 2005

GM trees

The Economist reports that genetically modified trees may be on their way. The goal is faster growing trees that make cheaper and better paper.
Lignin is one of the structural elements in the walls of the cells of which wood is composed. Paper is made from another of those elements, cellulose. The lignin acts as a glue, binding the cellulose fibres together, so an enormous amount of chemical and mechanical effort has to be expended on removing it. The hope is that trees can be modified to make less lignin, and more cellulose.

In a lucky break, it looks as though it might be possible to achieve both goals simultaneously. A few years ago a group of researchers at Michigan Technological University, led by Vincent Chiang, started the ball rolling. They produced aspens, another species of poplar, that have 45% less lignin and 15% more cellulose than their wild brethren, and grow almost twice as fast, as well. The mixture the team achieved leaves the combined mass of lignin and cellulose in the trunk more or less unchanged and, contrary to the expectations of many critics, the resulting trees are as strong as unmodified ones.
But...
Given the argument about genetically modified field-crops that has taken place in some parts of the world, genetically modified forests are likely to provoke an incandescent response. [...] In the case of trees it might not even be necessary for the gene to jump species. GM trees, with immunity to insect pests and faster growth rates than their unmodified competitors, might simply spread by the normal processes of natural selection. That really would be survival of the fittest.
I don't usually object very strongly to GM crops, but even for me this seems to be pushing it. Especially when the seeds of poplar trees have fluffy hair to spread in the wind, and aspens grow in colonies with new seedlings growing up to 40 m away from the parent tree.

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