Trees may be a renewable resource, but the rate of this renewal may not meet the increasing demand for plant biomass. But now researchers at the University of Manchester have potentially found a way to boost tree stocks by using gene manipulation to increase the size and growth rate of trees.

A research team, led by Professor Simon Turner from the University's Faculty of Life Sciences, successfully modified two genes in poplar trees, called PXY and CLE, which are responsible for the rate of cell division in tree trunks. Poplar trees are already fast growing, which has led to interest in them as an energy crop and for CO2 mitigation, but the researchers say that causing the genes to overexpress resulted in the trees growing twice as fast as normal, while also ending up taller, wider and with more leaves.

"Although, this needs be tested in the field, this discovery paves the way for generating trees that grow more quickly and so will contribute to meeting the needs for increased plant biomass as a renewable source of biofuels, chemicals and materials while minimising further CO2 release into the atmosphere," says Professor Turner.

In addition to potentially increasing supplies of biomass for biofuel and industrial biotechnology applications, Professor Turner says the discovery could also be used to help plants and crops deal with adverse conditions, including environmental shifts resulting from climate change.

"Our work offers the possibility we may be able to maintain a fast growth rate even in the face of adverse and changeable environmental conditions that all plants are likely to be faced with," says Professor Turner. "Most plants, including crops, respond to adverse environmental conditions with lower growth rates that result in correspondingly lower yields.

"Understanding how the plants respond to environmental signals and to what extent we are able to manipulate them to override these signals is likely to be very important for continued improvements to crop performance. In future it may be possible that manipulating the expression of the PXY and CLE genes can override environmental signals that normally alter plant growth.

The researchers are now looking to team up with a forest products company to put the process to the test in the field.

The team's paper detailing the discovery was published this week in the journal Current Biology.

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