Tree scientists are now using AI and gene editing software to overcome barriers and produce more sustainable wood fibres.
It found that by editing tree genetics, the pulp and paper sector could reduce greenhouse gases by 20% and fibre quality by 40%.
In a landmark study published in Nature, scientists from North Carolina State University use a process called ‘multiplex CRISPER’ where genes in fibres are edited to improve the properties of the wood.
Their results promise to make fibre manufacturing for a wide range of products—from cardboard and paper to nappies and clothing—greener, cheaper, and more efficient.
“The [CRISPR-edited wood] that we’ve made can have a tremendous impact on industrial operations and building the bioeconomy,” according to Professor Rodolphe Barrangou, co-author of the study.
Professor Barrangou, a professor in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing, and Nutrition Sciences at North Carolina State University (NCSU), told Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News that the financial, operational and environmental benefits are real.
“We hope that will provide a sense of urgency and impetus for many of our colleagues, governmental agencies, investors, innovators, and entrepreneurs,” Professor Barrangou said.
Forest-based industries have been slow to adopt to new approaches
Co-author Jack Wang, a professor at the College of Natural Resources at NCSU and Co-founder of TreeCo, said trees’ importance in the climate solution cannot be understated.
TreeCo. is a start-up research lab co-founded by both professors and provides leading insights into tree genetics.
“It focuses on combining tree-genetic insights with the power of genome editing to breed healthier forests and a more sustainable future,” Professor Wang told N.C. State University Press last year.
According to Professor Wang, most genetic materials used for sustainable fibre materials are from domesticated trees, which are not the most productive and sustainable.
“If you think about how far along agriculture,” Professor Wang said.
“There are substantial opportunities in forestry to make tangible benefits that could make our natural resources much more efficient, productive, sustainable, and of higher quality.”
Wood Central understands that the ability to isolate the desired cellulosic fibres from wood efficiently is determined by the wood’s content and composition of lignin.
According to the researchers, using domesticated forest trees is limited by the complexity and plasticity of lignin.
Over the last 50 years, researchers have investigated the individual components of lignin biosynthesis to help understand how changes may affect lignin content and composition in diverse plant species.
However, much work has predominantly focused on modifying single genes or gene families.
For the first time, the research explores modifying multiple genes simultaneously using multiplex CRISPR gene technology.
Using AI to predict and sort through genes in production
Decades of research have generated large amounts of genetics and data.
With the help of AI, the researchers successfully predicted and sorted through more than 69,000 different multigenic gene-editing strategies targeting 21 important genes associated with lignin production.
“[Trees] are very complex organisms that can thrive for hundreds of years, so their genetics are hard to understand.”
“That’s why we needed that machine learning model to decipher and understand the genetic regulation for information,” Professor Wang said.
“We then modified them using CRISPR in ways that can produce woody materials that are compatible with industrial processes or the conversion to useful products.”
Earlier this month, Wood Central reported that AI is transforming the forest and agriculture sector, and researchers have shown how predictive modelling can drive improvements to production and efficiencies.
The team used predictive modelling to set goals of lowering lignin levels, increasing the carbohydrate to lignin (C/L) ratio, and increasing the ratio of two important lignin building blocks—syringyl to guaiacyl (S/G)— in poplar trees.
The combined chemical characteristics represent a fibre production “sweet spot.”
Reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, Increase in pulp production
The efficiencies found in fibre production could also reduce greenhouse gases associated with pulp production by up to 20% if lignin was reduced and C/L and S/G ratios were also increased.
The study also included sophisticated pulp production mill models that suggest reduced lignin content in trees could increase pulp yield and reduce so-called black liquor, the major byproduct of pulping, which could help mills produce up to 40% more sustainable fibres.
“We plugged the numbers into a technical, economic model based on an actual pulp mill operation out of South America,” Professor Wang said.
“We discovered that using CRISPR-edited wood would potentially debottleneck one of the most critical industrial processes in fibre production.”
The financial sweet spot for pulp production
According to the researchers, the optimal rate of return is achieved by reducing lignin from 28% to 16% whilst also increasing the S/G ratio from 2.8 to 4.0.
“Increasing the C/L ratio in wood also means less biomass is required to produce the same amount of cellulose,” Professor Wang said.
When producing fibre, roughly 50% of the tree or wood is burnt carbon dioxide.
“Using CRISPR-Wood, the amount of carbon dioxide released into the environment can be reduced by upwards of 20%.”
“The carbon that does not go into the atmosphere is now sequestered as useful fibre materials to sustain the increasing demand for packaging cardboard, toilet paper, and diapers—even sustainable clothing nowadays made from wood.”
The next steps include continued greenhouse tests to see how the gene-edited trees perform compared to wild trees.
Later, the team hopes to use field trials to gauge whether the gene-edited trees can handle the stresses provided by life outdoors, outside the controlled greenhouse environment.
Editing trees is the best path to address Climate Change
Besides the legitimate and tangible industrial gains, the research shows gains at a time when climate commitments are failing.
Earlier this month, Wood Central reported that governments are failing to address global deforestation.
Research from the University of Maryland reports that an area of tropical forest the size of Switzerland was lost last year as tree losses surged.
“The carbon solutions are neither hopeful nor convincing,” Professor Barrangou said.
“When you think about the fact that about 57% of all carbon on the planet is in trees, editing trees is arguably the best path to address that and achieve what we intend to achieve as a planet in light of global warming.”
“The cost-benefit ratio of gene editing trees is far cheaper than that of gene editing therapies.”
Combining machine learning technologies with CRISPR and genetic insights can produce unique trees with tangible environmental and economic benefits.
Importantly, the approach can translate to other species of wood.
Professor Barrangou said they’re already working on other species of more substantial industrial and operational interest, such as eucalyptus and pine.
“It’s the start of a new era in sustainable forestry.”
Earlier this month, Wood Central reported that researchers are working to produce tree-less forest products using 3D printing, and according to Professor Barrangou, the innovation curve in the industry is leading to more meaningful findings by the day.
“If we had done this ten years ago, the world would not be ready for it, and ten years later, it’s too late to save the world,” said Professor Barrangou.
“Now, it’s not too early, and hopefully, it’s not too late.”