Why Are Scientists Genetically Modifying Trees?
The Lorax may speak for the trees, but even he might want to stop to listen to researchers’ new plans to genetically alter trees. What may outwardly seem like disconcerting news just might change how paper is made for the better.
The engineered trees would allow manufacturers to create paper significantly easier. Moreover, it’s not just the paper industry that benefits from this change – the effects would be advantageous to the entire planet. Paper created from these special trees would require less energy and fewer chemicals to produce, and the entire process would release fewer pollutants.
How does it work? I’m not a botanist, but I’ll do my best to summarize the science behind the discovery.
Most plants contain lignin, a durable polymer in the cell wall. This tough substance, which makes up around 20-25 percent of a tree, must be removed from the wood before it can be turned into paper. For that reason, a lot of chemicals and fuel are allotted just to break down the lignin, wreaking havoc on the environment.
While experiments attempting to reduce lignin in trees have been ongoing for years now, scientists had difficulty getting their modified trees to grow tall and survive the elements like normal trees. More recently, researchers have found more success in weakening the lignin so that it comes off easier rather than eliminating lignin from plants altogether.
Obviously, people have plenty of reasons to be wary of genetically altering plant life. The good news is that these trees are being engineered not as a potentially dangerous food source, but in order to create paper on which people write. That seems like a reasonable option to explore considering the positive environmental impact. After all, the lowered rate of pollution will benefit the trees in the long term, too – both natural and modified.
Cross-contamination of engineered trees with natural trees is a valid concern, but so long as scientists and industries remain committed to growing the trees in isolated areas, cross-pollination shouldn’t occur. Furthermore, genetically modifying the trees to the point of sterilization would also help prevent these manipulated genes from accidentally spreading in the wild.
Environmentalists can also look forward to the modified trees’ potential reaching beyond paper usage. Since lignin also is an obstacle in create biofuels, scientists expect they can use their recent breakthroughs to create biofuels more easily, as well. That means less pollution twice over.
Photo Credit: Jiri Brozovsky