The expensive, energy-intensive process of turning wood into paper costs the pulp and paper industries more than $6 billion a year. Much of that expense involves separating wood’s cellulose from lignin, the glue that binds a tree’s fibers, by using an alkali solution and high temperatures and pressures. Although the lignin so removed is reused as fuel, wood with less lignin and more cellulose would save the industry millions of dollars a year in processing and chemical costs. Research at North Carolina State University shows promise of achieving that goal.
By genetically modifying aspen trees, Dr. Vincent L. Chiang, professor of forest biotechnology, and his colleagues have reduced the trees’ lignin content by 45 to 50 percent – and accomplished the first successful dual-gene alteration in forestry science. Their results are described in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). According to Chiang, the NC State research shows not only a decrease in lignin but also an increase in cellulose in the transgenic aspens. And their work demonstrates another benefit: the trees grow faster.
That is very good news for the wood, paper and pulp industries, which do multibillion-dollar business worldwide. Fast-growing, low-lignin trees offer both economic and environmental advantages, because separating lignin from cellulose – using harsh alkaline chemicals and high heat – is costly and environmentally unfriendly. Harvesting such trees, using them as “crops” with desirable traits, would also reduce pressure on existing forests.
Dr. Vincent L. Chiang | North Carolina State University
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