Environment

Gene manipulation boosts tree growth rate and size

Scientists have boosted the growth rate and size of the already fast-growing poplar tree (Photo: Shutterstock)
Scientists have boosted the growth rate and size of the already fast-growing poplar tree (Photo: Shutterstock)
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The researchers successfully modified two genes in poplar trees, called PXY and CLE, which are responsible for the rate of cell division in tree trunks (Photo: University of Manchester)
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The researchers successfully modified two genes in poplar trees, called PXY and CLE, which are responsible for the rate of cell division in tree trunks (Photo: University of Manchester)
The poplar trees on the left that were subject to gene manipulation grew faster than regular trees (Photo: University of Manchester)
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The poplar trees on the left that were subject to gene manipulation grew faster than regular trees (Photo: University of Manchester)
Gene manipulation resulted in an increase in the rate of cell division in the poplar trees (Photo: University of Manchester)
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Gene manipulation resulted in an increase in the rate of cell division in the poplar trees (Photo: University of Manchester)
Scientists have boosted the growth rate and size of the already fast-growing poplar tree (Photo: Shutterstock)
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Scientists have boosted the growth rate and size of the already fast-growing poplar tree (Photo: Shutterstock)

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.

The poplar trees on the left that were subject to gene manipulation grew faster than regular trees (Photo: University of Manchester)
The poplar trees on the left that were subject to gene manipulation grew faster than regular trees (Photo: University of Manchester)

"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.

Source: University of Manchester

9 comments
Pete Rasmussen
We don't need genetically modified plants at all. Just grow another variety. These researchers should be locked in a monkey cage in the zoo!
Buellrider
Those trees shown look suspiciously like trees that have been grown in rows for years and were always fast growing. Problem is, they don't live very long. Grow fast, die young and leave an ugly corpse.
Bob Flint
Bamboo already does that at about 1 foot per day in ideal climate.
apprenticeearthwiz
CSIRO already has some impressive research on increasing the rate of tree growth. Mixed species grown close together massively lifts the rate of growth. It may be no surprise to find that's how rain forests do it. Of course this is no help to the dinosaurs who want to continue with monocultures and certainly no help to the bank balances of big pharma. Neither of them are at all interested in the knowledge that it's far less expensive to not mess up the earth.
Conny Söre
The key word here is mass, as in binding a lot of carbon and creating dense wood. Getting tall faster or getting more branches or leaves does not necessarily mean that the tree catches more carbon from the atmosphere. Choosing a better existing kind of tree or grass that achieves that would be better spent research than tweaking with genes.
Douglas Bennett Rogers
Long life is not required, only incorporation into a long-lived product, followed by non-oxidative interment.
John Dziki
Peter Rasmussen needs to be targeted for a drone strike as a bioterrorist.
spicedreams
Trees only absorb carbon dioxide until they are cut down. Then, a large proportion of the carbon goes back as carbon dioxide as the wasted leaves and branches decompose; and some as methane if roots decompose in wet soil. If the objective is to absorb CO2, trees that can be cut down sooner is probably not the answer.
christopher
You can't stop 7 billion people in 200+ countries playing with this stuff, so you may as well embrace it. And, lets face it, we need *something* to come along and wipe out at least the majority of the disease that's sickening our planet (us), not that it matters - we're headed for a collision with our sun anyhow.
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