Yesterday researchers from the Great Lakes Bioenergy Center and University of Wisconsin-Madison published evidence that the environmental impact associated with processing softwoods into biomass can be greatly reduced by bio-engineering.
The addition of two hardwood genes to their counterparts, softwoods, may be able to alter the weak environmental tradeoff of creating softwood-derived paper, pulp and biofuel, according to a new study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
What is normally a defining trait between the wood types – the ability to produce S and G monomers from which lignin is derived – was manipulated to allow softwood’s the same degradation ease as hardwoods. Normally softwoods only produce G monomers, notoriously more difficult to break down, while hardwoods generate both.
Though more laborious to process, softwoods are prized for their long fibres, useful for the synthesis of strong paper items like shipping boxes or shopping bags. The sugars in softwoods are also easier to refine into ethanol, a big advantage for biofuel production. Researchers used a model known as the “tracheary element” (TE), to induce suspension-cultured cells to build secondary cell walls characteristic of S monomers, transforming the cells in their softwood pine subjects.
The next step will be turning model results into plant based results, a highly anticipated leap. The study was funded in part by the Great Lakes lab itself, one of three Bioenergy Research Centers established by the U.S. Department of Energy to help foster cellulosic biofuel breakthroughs.