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Tapping into gum trees for fuel

Pretoria - Ever thought a jumbo jet could take off using biofuel from a tree? It’s a definite possibility after 80 researchers from around the world decoded the genome of eucalyptus trees over five years.

This scientific development opens a new world of possibilities for renewable energy and biofuels.

It is only the second time a tree’s genome has been decoded and a local researcher from the University of Pretoria (UP) was at the forefront of the work that will be featured in Nature, an international science journal.

Professor Zander Myburg, director of the forest molecular genetics programme in the department of genetics, led the project to “unravel the genetic blueprint” of eucalyptus grandis – gum trees.

“Now that we understand which genes determine specific characteristics in these trees, we can breed trees that grow faster, have higher quality wood, use water more efficiently and cope better with climate change,” Myburg said.

“Even more, we can turn well-managed eucalyptus plantations into bio-factories to produce specific kinds of sought-after materials and chemicals.”

Gum trees are native to Australia, grow exceptionally fast and are planted across the world for timber, pulp and paper.

The trees are highly adaptable and are increasingly being used for chemical cellulose, used in textiles and pharmaceuticals.

With the new knowledge about the molecular basis of plants, researchers can use the same techniques in woody plants as feedstock for the bio-economy of the future.

Decoding the genome of the trees took 80 researchers from 30 institutions in 18 countries five years.

Co-leaders of the project included researchers from Brazil and the US.

The US department of energy was a major funder and most of the sequencing took place at the Joint Genome Institute in California.

They analysed 640 million base pair genomes and combed through 36 000 genes in the tree.

The researchers focused on genes that could boost economic growth by influencing the production of cellulose.

Myburg and his team identified genes that could be used for biofuel production.

Two researchers, based in Australia, also found the trees had specialised metabolites – terpenes – used in medicinal cough drops.

Another member of the terpene family could be a “promising alternative” for petroleum-based fuels.

“This means that in future we could use specially selected eucalyptus genes in bacteria and yeasts, turning them into bio-factories to manufacture advanced biofuels on a large scale,” Myburg says.

“In future, jumbo jets may take off powered by renewable, eucalyptus-based fuel. As one of the lead organisations, UP is delighted with the outcomes of the project and the exciting new opportunities for our genomic research programmes,” says Prof Anton Ströh, dean of the faculty of natural and agricultural Sciences.

The research was supported by the department of science and technology and forestry companies Sappi and Mondi that funded the construction of the genome map.

“Development of new knowledge and skills in tree genomics and the application of that knowledge to enhance industry competitiveness is aligned with the department’s vision of a bio-economy,” said Science and Technology director-general Dr Phil Mjwara. - Pretoria News

Twitter: @LalivZ

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