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Monday, July 26, 1999 Published at 21:21 GMT 22:21 UK


GM tree is more 'green'

GM trees could mean 'greener' paper making

A GM tree has been created that requires far less energy and fewer toxic chemicals to turn it into paper. The tree also grows faster than traditional varieties.

Scientists believe the breakthrough will not only boost forestry and reduce pollution but will also mark the beginning of a new era when forest trees can follow animals and crops in becoming more fully domesticated.

Crops like wheat are very different to the grasses from which they were originally derived and the changes were introduced by selective growing over thousands of generations.

[ image: Forestry accounts for more than 1% of the world's economy]
Forestry accounts for more than 1% of the world's economy
But, commenting on the research, Professor Ron Sederoff, a tree biotechnologist at North Carolina State University, told BBC News Online: "The generation time of a scientist and a tree are about the same, so it would take a very long time to go through a few thousand generations."

"Now [with genetic modification], we have the technology to make changes in a more immediate and directed way," he said. "It would be wonderful if this new tree helped to reduce the impact of wood paper processing on the environment."

Double-edged benefit

However, many of the green pressure groups who have campaigned against pollution from paper mills are also strong opponents of GM technology.

Mike Childs is Friends of the Earth's senior campaigner on industry and pollution and told BBC News Online: "You have to ask how much this technology is needed. The answer is not to produce more wood, but make better use of that produced in a natural way."

"Vast amounts of paper currently end up in landfill sites after its first use and newspapers are getting ever bigger. We need to look at different ways of communicating."

Mr Childs also argues that there needs to be fairer distribution of the raw material, so developing countries can, for example, support their increasing literacy.

However, Professor Sederoff believes the blanket rejection of GM technology is unfounded: "It's silly to say the technology by itself is bad - there are ways to use it that we should support and ways that we shouldn't. That's been true for every major technology in human history."

Tough stuff

The difficulty in making paper from wood is removing the lignin, a very tough polymer which gives the trees rigidity, from the wood pulp. Some very toxic chemicals and considerable energy are needed.

But a group led by Professor Vincent Chiang at the School of Forestry, Michigan Technological University, US, have created a GM tree with 45% less lignin.

They did this by blocking the RNA which helps translate one gene's instructions into an enzyme important in the production of lignin.

[ image: The GM aspens grew much faster than the traditional variety (left)]
The GM aspens grew much faster than the traditional variety (left)
The tree the scientists experimented on was an aspen (Populus tremuloides) which is not widely grown in commercial forests. But it is likely that other trees share the same biochemical mechanisms, meaning the same GM approach might well work in, for example, pines.

Shooting up

An interesting and unexpected side-effect was that the trees actually grew faster than non-GM varieties.

However, whether a mature GM tree with only 50% of its normal lignin might be less strong and more easily blown over in the wind is not yet clear.

The research is published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

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Internet Links

Michigan Technological University: Plant Biotechnology Research Centre

North Carolina State University: Dept of Forestry

Nature Biotechnology

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