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VIB applies for second poplar field trial

Ghent, 1 February 2013. VIB has asked the federal government for a license to perform a second field trial with genetically modified poplars. The wood from these trees has a slightly different composition, meaning that it can be converted to sugars in a more efficient and more environmentally friendly manner. One of the aims of the field trial is to evaluate how the trees perform under realistic outdoor conditions. Another aim will be to expose the wood from the poplars to empirical conversion trials at a pilot factory scale. The field trial will take place at the ILVO Wetteren field trial site and falls under the "Ghent Bio-Economy" focal point of the University of Ghent.

The study framework

The field trial forms part of the research into options for using trees with an altered wood composition as a raw material for sustainable, bio-based products and bio-energy. Bio-plastics and biodegradable materials are currently made primarily using starch from crops such as corn. Alternatives are being sought to make the process more energy-efficient and to reserve fertile soil and food crops for food production. Trees may form an alternative, as their wood forms a possible raw material. Poplars have a number of interesting characteristics for this purpose: They grow quickly and they also grow well in boggy soil that is less suitable for food production.

Which genetic modification?

Wood consists primarily of three components: cellulose, hemi-cellulose and lignin. The first two components cellulose and hemi-cellulose are sugar polymers. These are the sugars that form the raw materials for the production of bio-plastics and biodegradable biomaterials. Bio-fuel can also be produced by means of fermentation. The third component lignin gives the wood more sturdiness. It must be degraded in order to release the sugar molecules. The degradation of lignin is technically complicated and an environmentally unfriendly process as a result of the use of energy and chemicals such as caustic soda. The genetically modified poplars for this new field trial have an altered lignin composition, making it easier to degrade. They were created at the INRA in France as part of an EU financed research project to which also VIB participated. The results of the new field trial will be particularly interesting in comparison to the current poplar field trial in Zwijnaarde. In contrast to the new tress, the genetically modified poplars in Zwijnaarde mainly have less lignin. These poplars will undergo their first real harvest at the end of this winter.

Changes in lignin composition also exist in nature

Changes in the lignin composition in wood also occur in nature, but they are very rare. In recent years, a black poplar was discovered in Europe and a pine was discovered in the United States that have acquired similar changes in wood composition as a result of natural mutations. Transferring these mutations to fast-growing, modified trees via classic breeding is an option, but is difficult and time-consuming. The genetic modification of the poplars will produce results much more quickly. Scientific know-how is also acquired about screening of natural populations of trees in future for their potential use in a bio-based economy.

The license procedure

The license application for the new field trial has been declared complete and acceptable. The Federal minister Onkelinx, as well as the state secretary Wathelet, will decide on the dossier with input from the Flemish minister Schauvliege. Advice will be obtained from the Bio-Safety Council in this matter. The general population can view the dossier via the website of the Federal Public Service for Health, Food Chain Safety and Environment and in the town halls of Melle and Wetteren. This is part of the public enquiry that will open from 5 February to 7 March 2013.

Contact: Kris Van der Beken
VIB (the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology)

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