Are GMO Trees Good for the Environment?
Researchers have genetically engineered poplar trees that they claim will clean up the notoriously messy paper industry. These genetically modified organisms are designed to be easier to break down in order to produce paper and biofuels than normal trees, meaning a conservation of chemicals and energy that scientists explain will be good for the environment.
The key is a molecule called lignin, a tough polymer found in the cell walls of most plants, which the researchers modified into a form that is much easier to break down.
Regular, non-genetically engineered wood requires an energy-intensive process that uses about 200 different chemicals to extract the lignin. Lignin composes about 20-25 percent of a tree, and lends trees their strength, which is why natural lignin is very difficult to break down. For the UBC researchers, the problem was to find a way to engineer lignin that could be easily broken down, without compromising the tree’s strength.
The solution was to insert genes for a chemical called ferulic acid, producing GMO trees with lignin that does not compromise their strength while they are growing, but which breaks down easily with a simple chemical treatment at 100 degrees Celsius.