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Wood is great for building and heating homes, but it’s the bane of biofuels. When converting plants to fuels, engineers must remove a key component of wood, known as lignin, to get to the sugary cellulose that’s fermented into alcohols and other energy-rich compounds. That’s costly because it normally requires high temperatures and caustic chemicals. Now, researchers in the United States and Canada have modified the lignin in poplar trees to self-destruct under mild processing conditions—a trick that could slash the cost of turning plant biomass into biofuels.
I’m not an alarmist about genetic modification. Over the years I’ve gone from unsure and cautious to fine with it and even pro-modification for the right applications. This proposal however at the least raises some questions in my mind.
I wonder what the risks are of this new gene getting into the wild population. There are already documented cases of genes inserted in food crops crossing with existing, non-modified, strains of the crop. Now, maybe it would be the case that non-modified trees would just out compete any strains with this modification but nature can be complex and unpredictable. It seems like more fragile trees that are easier targets for pests and disease could be one nightmare result of this idea.