Genetically-modified poplar trees that do not release air-polluting chemicals

Jan 8 (Agencies) | Publish Date: 1/8/2020 1:32:19 PM IST

 Genetically modified poplar trees that do not release air-polluting chemicals that help produce ozone may hold the key to saving the planet, a study suggested. Poplars are a fast-growing source of renewable wood fuel — and are often seen as a greener alternative to fossil fuels.

However, these trees also emit high levels of the chemical isoprene that forms toxic ozone when mixed with other air pollutants in sunlight. 

The genetically-edited trees grow as well as their natural counterparts, researchers from the US said. 

However, fears that genetically modified trees could damage wildlife means that schemes involving planting such face massive opposition.

'Our findings suggest isoprene emissions can be diminished without affecting biomass production in temperate forest plantations,' said paper author and forest biotechnologist Steve Strauss of the Oregon State University. 'That's what we wanted to examine — can you turn down isoprene production, and does it matter to biomass productivity and general plant health?' 'It looks like it doesn't impair either significantly. In Arizona, where it's super hot, if isoprene mattered to productivity, it would show up in a striking way, but it did not.' 'Plants are smart — they'll compensate and do something different if they need to.'

In three-year-long trials at plantations across Oregon and Arizona, the researchers showed that trees can be genetically modified to reduce negative impacts on air quality while leaving their growth potential virtually unchanged.

The team genetically modified poplars not to produce isoprene. Trees whose production was suppressed did not suffer any ill effects.Their photosynthesis, or 'biomass production' was the same as unaltered varieties — and they were able to make fuel and grow as well.

The researchers used a genetic engineering tool known as RNA interference to disrupt protein coding instructions from each cell's DNA. The researcher's work paves the way for for future isoprene research — including in different growing environments. 

'The fact cultivars of poplar can be produced in a way that ameliorates atmospheric impacts without significantly reducing biomass production gives us a lot of optimism,' said paper author and Arizona University ecologist Russell Monson.

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