Genetically-Modified Fuel

Researchers at Pennsylvania State University have grown poplar trees that contain a gene from a very different plant: a green bean! The green bean gene causes changes in the makeup of the poplar trees lignin. Lignin is a material that is normally found together with cellulose in the woody parts of plants. Lignin is important for maintaining a plants structure and protecting the plant from microorganisms.

Plant cellulose stores a lot of energy. This energy is harvested to make ethanol, a fuel that can be used in some vehicles and for other energy needs, too. To access the energy in cellulose, workers must first break apart the lignin to get the cellulose. This process is hard and expensive to do! However, the green bean gene changes the lignin in such a way that accessing the cellulose is much easier and cheaper to do.

The Pennsylvania State University researchers found that their work has other uses, too. Some plants, such as ryegrass and clover, are not good for feeding to animals because the high amount of lignin is hard for the animals to digest. By genetically modifying these plants, their lignin would be more digestible to the animals.

Genetically modified plants must be approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before they can be sold and used outside of research facilities. Why do you think that is?

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