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Researchers Branch Out To Grow A Greener Tree

Trees are one of the most valuable resources on the planet, responsible for clean air and water, cooler temperatures, wildlife habitats, and numerous materials used in everything from home construction to cooking. Changes to the environment and increased logging, however, have seriously impacted forests across the globe. 

Researchers at North Carolina (NC) State University in Raleigh have recently discovered a method to grow – resistant trees quickly — a discovery that could have a massive impact on the future of forests and forestry. These researchers have launched a start-up called TreeCo to share these tougher genetically-modified trees.

Photo Courtesy Luca Bravo

TreeCo essentially “edits” trees at the stem cell level, using safe, non-GMO genome editing to modify weakness as needed for the end use.

The resulting tree is pest-resistant, resilient against various climate impacts and fast-growing enough to prevent ecosystem destruction.

It was founded by Jack Wang, NC State Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources assistant professor, and Rodolphe Barrangou, the university’s Todd R. Klaenhammer Distinguished professor in Probiotics Research. TreeCo will focus on commercially-important species such as pine, firs and poplar.

Photo Courtesy TreeCo

“We have identified several unique gene targets that could confer significant trait improvements in stress resistance, or for improved conversion of wood into a particular fiber or chemical product,” Wang explained. “But before today, there has not been a feasible route to modify these genes that would enable trait improvement, particularly for commercial applications or ecosystem conservation. But new genome editing technologies will make forestry an efficient, robust industry that can meet the needs of society.”

The resulting trees may mean a greener canopy for all and bigger profits for companies that rely on timber. With forestry bringing more than $32 billion and 150,000 jobs to the Tar Heel State every year, it’s a critical part of the state’s economy.

These genetically modified trees essentially lower the carbon emissions released during a harvest while increasing profits for timber and timber-reliant companies. 

Photo Courtesy Sarah Worth

“By editing specific genes, it changes the composition of the wood in such a way that they require less energy to pulp, they require less hazardous toxic chemicals, and they release less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” Wang added

TreeCo expects these trees of the future to be commercially available by 2046.

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