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Geneticists Create Tree That is Directly Convertible to Ethanol

Geneticists Create Tree That is Directly Convertible to Ethanol

Researchers look at poplars as ethanol source.

November 23, 2007 —

Scientists are tinkering with tree DNA to create a new way of burning wood. No, not in a stove. In our cars and other engines driven by combustion. Using genetic engineering techniques, a team from the forest biotechnology group at North Carolina State University is trying to remake the nature of cellulose in wood. Their goal: reduce the lignin in cellulose that prevents the alchemy of turning wood to ethanol. Ethanol is a biofuel that can run combustion engines as a straight fuel or a fuel additive—reducing oil dependency. Some tests show ethanol as a highly efficient fuel. If the method is commercially viable, it means trees would be planted as fuel crops just like corn.

So far the team has produced transgenic trees with fifty percent less lignin—enough to make the wood transformable to ethanol. Observers in the environmental field state that mass tree growth could have problems as lignin is what gives trees upright strength and helps resist pests. Opponents to tree genetic engineering worry over another transgenic species in nature and unknown consequences as trees easily thrive in the wild. The reduced lignin trait could spread. Supporters of tree farming for ethanol say the tree farms would reduce carbon dioxide and could be harvested as needed, rather than having to wait for a seasonal crop cycle like corn.

Ethanol in the U.S. is almost entirely produced by corn sarch, with Iowa just coming in this week with bumper corn crop yields—much of its going to ethanol production. Corn-growing in the U.S. is heavily subsidized by the federal government. Ethanol needs would be enormous in the U.S. and advocates of the tree technology point to it as a large mass source for ethanol. Critics (including at the UN) say more of America’s corn should be going overseas to help reduce hunger. And there is the question of how much subsidies from the government should go to ethanol production versus funding research for other more sustainable and less polluting technologies. Ethanol pollution in some studies is as high as gasoline.

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