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Getting the Most Out of It

By making a genetic change to lignin, a team of researchers from Michigan State University, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison say that those plants could be more easily broken down for use as biofuels.

"It's essential that we have biomass that's readily degradable that we can easily extract sugars from to turn into fuel," Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Jay Keasling, who was not involved in the work, tells the New Scientist.

The team reports in Science this week that they engineered poplar, introducing ester linkages into the lignin polymer backbone. They then were able to extract nearly twice the amount of sugar from the modified plants, as compared to the unmodified plants, New Scientist notes.

"If we can breed trees that are easier to delignify, with less energy or less chemicals, that's good for society, it's good for industry," Björn Sundberg from Stora Enso, a Swedish wood pulping company, says. "They have a proof of concept that you can do this, to change the lignin structure in a way that has a lot of promise, but it has some way to go before it becomes industrial. You have to do it in commercial trees and at large scale."