In a major breakthrough, a group of scientists genetically modified trees to address environmental concerns associated with paper production. Researchers in new research published in the journal scienceAttempts have been made to show that precise genetic engineering can lead to improved wood structure, reducing the need for harmful chemicals and energy-intensive processes involved in papermaking.
Environmental concerns of paper manufacturing
Paper production has long been associated with the release of chemical pollutants and greenhouse gases (GHGs) that contribute to climate change. This process involves cutting and dissolving the lignin in the wood, which leads to the generation of significant chemical waste and significant carbon dioxide emissions when the lignin is burned. Science reports that paper production causes more than 150 million tons of GHG emissions annually.
Jack WangOne of the study’s authors and an adjunct professor North Carolina State University’s College of Natural Sciences and ResourcesIt was explained that modifying lignin to be compatible with production processing applications is challenging due to the complexity of the polymers within wood.
To solve this problem, scientists used the CRISPR gene editing technique, which allowed them to precisely change specific sections of DNA in poplar trees. His goal was to improve papermaking efficiency and reduce waste and pollution by reducing lignin content and increasing carbohydrates.
The team used predictive machine learning models to analyze 70,000 potential gene-editing strategies, eventually narrowing them down to less than 350. Through further experiments, they discovered seven effective strategies for targeting multiple gene editing simultaneously.
CRISPR-edited poplars: improved wood structure
Scientists created 174 different poplars using CRISPR gene editing and grew them in a greenhouse for six months. After analyzing the wood composition, they found that the edited trees had significantly less lignin and a higher carbohydrate content. Some trees were even half the size of normal poplars, while lignin showed a 228% increase in carbohydrate content.
These gene-edited trees have a remarkable impact on paper production. By using these types of trees, a typical paper mill can increase its paper production by 40% and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20%, ultimately increasing revenue by nearly $1 billion over the life of the factory.
The innovative development promises to make paper production more sustainable and less polluting. Researchers believe that this engineered wood can significantly improve fiber production processes, offering bioeconomic opportunities and significant environmental benefits.
This is not the first time scientists have explored genetic changes in trees. In 2022, researchers designed a new type of tree that effectively captures atmospheric carbon and stores it for long periods of time. Additionally, scientists have successfully developed lab-grown wood, providing a potential alternative to wood products that cause deforestation.