Genetic Engineering, Trees and Carbon Fiber

Genetic engineering…still sounds the stuff of science fiction, doesn’t it? Well it seems nowadays everything is being genetically engineered, including trees. Moreover, some think of genetically engineering them so that they become giving trees. Trees already give us so much, like wood and paper, but in about fifty years, they may give us carbon fiber.

As this article points out, “Carbon fiber is one of the strongest and most resilient materials, used in everything from car frames to body armor. It’s also incredibly expensive to make.” Think of carbon fiber as a rare diamond of sorts or the Holy Grail of manufacturers. Needless to say, anyway to circumnavigate the difficult process of acquiring carbon fiber is a good thing and Gerald Tuskan, a plant geneticist, believes that lignin – a substance found in trees – is the key that’ll unlock the door to civilization’s future.

Lignin is crucial in strengthening plant cell walls; it can also be melted and spun into carbon fibers. What Tuskan is working on is how to grow trees that can produce the right amounts of lignin. To accomplish this, we must tap into the tree genome, which has been sequenced and possesses more than the human genome, so we have options here. It just takes some time, finding out what genes will work best with industrial applications.

Regardless of the timeframe, it is very apparent that trees are partly responsible for the greatest achievements throughout human history, be it through wood or paper, and now it seems that those same trees will carry us into the future. The next time you see a tree, be sure to say, “Thanks.”