FuturaGene looks to better biomass yields

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  • 28 January/February 2012 | Renewable Energy Focus

    focus:InnovationScience R&D Technology

    Whilst many hope that large-scale bio-energy programs will make a signi cant contribution to the global renewable energy matrix, energy security in resource-poor countries also needs to be tackled. Producing power from energy-dense plantation forestry is one area that could repre-sent a low entry barrier to improving energy security for any country with the right growing conditions. And experience gained in countries like Brazil and China could help facilitate this technology transfer.

    But if using bio-energy to produce fuels and generate electricity

    is ever to escape the controversy sur-rounding the con icting use of land and indeed become the energy game changer that many hope the feed-stock industry around the world needs to deliver the right messages to policy makers and civil society stakeholders.

    This message is a simple one, but diffi cult to realise in practice: That biomass supplies are sustainable, and subject to stringent resource analysis. This would be a start in putting to rest high-pro le controversies over the harvesting of woody biomass, and how it impacts on the food-versus-fuel con icts.

    With this in mind, much research is being undertaken into ways that feedstocks can be grown more sus-tainably. Continued R&D into fast growing non-food crop feedstocks has now become a recognised global priority. And with this vision in mind, a project in Brazil, being undertaken by FuturaGene (acquired by Suzano Pulp and Paper in 2010) is looking to Genetic Modi cation (GM) to boost the yield in woody plants, principally eucalyptus.

    The Project Improving the competitiveness of Brazilian eucalyp-tus through the development of plants genetically modi ed has just received direct Government support; in November 2011, the Brazilian Gov-ernments Science and Technology Ministrys FINEP agency awarded Suzano a grant of US$1.2m). This will be matched by funding of US$2.4m from Suzano.

    The current project is the culmi-nation of over 30 years of conven-tional eucalyptus breeding expertise at Suzano, combined with over 15 years experience in biotechnology at FuturaGene. And the recent nancial boost has coincided with Futura-Genes regulatory trials of a novel, yield-enhancing trait in eucalyptus the rst for GM yield-enhanced eucalyptus in Brazil.

    Increasing the yieldFuturaGenes expertise in trait

    improvement methodologies centres around its ability to insert genes into the plant cell; whose protein products are then able to mediate more rapid relaxation and recrystallisation of plant cell walls (Cell Wall Technology) during plant cell growth and division. This, says FuturaGene, enables faster plant growth.

    And according to the company, GM plants derived from this proce-dure have consistently been shown to display considerably enhanced yield in the case of eucalyptus growing in Brazilian eld conditions up to tens of percentage points above original par-ent varieties.

    Whilst this is a signi cant tech-nical breakthrough for plantation forestry, the results, according to the company, demonstrate some of

    FuturaGene looks to better biomass yields

    AS THE controversy between food vs. fuel continues to dominate the bio-energy sector, many organisations are striving to make bio-energy more sustainable. One Brazilian organisation FuturaGene is

    involved in a long-term project to transform the global competitiveness and sustainability of woody biomass pro-duction. And if successful with trials involving genetically modi ed eucalyptus, the company claims its methods could signi cantly improve current biomass yield targets...

    FuturaGenes expertise in trait improvement methodolo-gies centres around its ability to insert genes into the plant cell, whose protein products are then able to mediate more rapid relaxation and recrys-tallisation of plant cell walls (Cell Wall Technology) during plant cell growth and division. This, says FuturaGene, enables faster plant growth.

    REF13_1p28_29.indd 28 2/9/2012 3:10:14 PM

  • Innovation

    29January/February 2012 | Renewable Energy Focus

    About: Mike May is consultant on public policy to FuturaGene.

    the rst examples of successful yield enhancement in any commercial GM crop. Because Cell Wall Technology speci cally targets the extremely rigid plant cell wall, some genes are being used speci cally to increase cell wall permeability to enable cheaper and more environmentally friendly down-stream processing whether for pulp or bioethanol production.

    FuturaGene is also developing GM eucalyptus clones with the potential to resist pest and pathogen threats, under a yield protection program. The current worldwide increase in the spread of insects and fungi harmful to eucalyptus, combined with climate change, has the potential to create unprecedented pest and disease out-breaks in new geographies. And yield protection is expected to become one of the main targets for breeding pro-grams to engineer the resilience that will be required to cope with future environmental shocks and stresses.

    As with the Cell Wall Technology, the GM approach off ers an opportu-nity to rationally design new traits that are not possible through con-ventional means where a limited pool of resistance genes has ham-pered approaches for pest and disease resistance in conventional breeding programs to date.

    The chemical control of pests and diseases in plantations is also not a viable option; from both an economi-cal and environmental perspective; the advantages presented by GM approaches to pest and disease control are one of the few realistic options available, believes FuturaGene. Using GM technology, the company says it is able to introduce genes into the euca-lyptus (that have highly-speci c pest target pro les), as well as screen for novel resistance enhancement. Such GM approaches under evaluation at FuturaGene are essential, in order to go beyond the limits of conventional breeding, says the company.

    Breeding programsFuturaGene says its Cell Wall

    Technology provides a more targeted, rapid and environmentally sustain-able approach to yield enhancement compared to conventional breeding techniques. The project to date has

    reportedly con rmed that conven-tional plantation management prac-tices can be applied irrespective of whether the trees are GM or not.

    GM approaches to yield enhance-ment, as well as pest and disease resistance, are therefore proving to be a valuable extension to Suzanos breeding program, which focuses on energy-dense biomass using speci c crosses of eucalypt varieties. This breeding program has produced a promising set of hybrids that:

    Have high lignin content; Can be planted at very high

    density; Have a drastically compressed life

    cycle of 2-3 years from planting to harvest;

    And have improved pelleting characteristics.

    Coupled with improvements in wood pelleting technology achieved by Suz-ano Renewables, the company claims it will be able to generate around 1 million tones of wood pellets from just 38,000 hectares; this could support a thermo electric power plant of 220 MW (assuming an effi ciency of 37%), says the company. And the Cell Wall Technology will provide a signi cant upside to this production capacity.

    Suzano has already initiated an integrated project in North East Brazil that will include sustainable energy plantation forests and the worlds largest wood pelleting capac-ity for the off take derived from these plantations.

    Whilst regulatory trials for GM tree events may be costly and time-consuming, they establish not only biosafety assurance, but also provide an invaluable vehicle for the develop-ment of science-based criteria and indicators regarding GM feedstock sustainability.

    Recognition of the value of inten-sively-managed plantation forestry (IMPF) in ecosystem service and biodiversity protection is beginning to emerge, through the case stud-ies of the WWF-led New Generation Plantation Program for example. By signi cantly enhancing plantation yield per hectare, the Cell Wall Tech-nology has the potential to further

    reduce pressure on natural forests and enhance the carbon sequestration capacity of managed plantations.

    The integration of yield-enhanc-ing technology also means that further enlargement of the 0.7% of arable land presently used for plantation forestry in Brazil can be minimised, despite growing demand for forestry and forest products. Additionally, by Brazilian Law, a proportion of all owned land used for forestry purposes must be set aside as legally protected reserves in the case of Suzano plantations this is 37% above the legal require-ment. Such mosaic planting provides ecological corridors and refuges for wildlife and the preservation of ecosystem services, whilst inte-grated livestock and forestry planta-tion (ILFP) management practices established by Suzano provide mixed income for farmers.

    Other international FuturaGene research

    FuturaGene continues to invest in GM tree research at facilities in Brazil, China and Israel.

    In December 2011, it inaugu-rated a dedicated research centre in Shanghai to support its alliances with the Chinese Academy of For-estry, Guangxi Academy of Sciences, Beijing Forestry University and other institutions.

    China, like Brazil views GM planta-tion forestry as a strategic asset, and although complex for foreign compa-nies, the industry has been prioritised through key legislation. China aims to reverse deserti cation (a problem that aff ects 400 million people and 18% of Chinas land surface); restore saline soil (in China there are 99 million hectares of land aff ected by high saline and alkaline conditions); accelerate the develop


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