I am sure all readers must be aware of the famous fairy tale “Jack and the Beanstalk” in which Jack sells a cow in exchange of some magic beans which lead to the growth of a gigantic beanstalk outside his house overnight. If you thought the story of Jack’s beanstalk was just a fairytale, meet Dr. Richard Meagher of University of Georgia.

On a site where 35 hat factories stood, Meagher has grown 160 Eastern cottonwood trees. Although they may look innocuous, these trees aren’t your usual cottonwoods. Instead, Meagher has tweaked them genetically so that they can soak up more toxic mercury from the soil. Not only are these wonder trees large mercury sponges, they have been genetically engineered to lessen the toxicity of mercury before it is released into thin air. If Meagher’s experiment is successful, it will usher in the era of genetically engineered trees that will soldier on to fight pollution.

Meagher is not alone in chasing his dream of super trees. In a world threatened by 2,00,000 acres (1 football field = about 1.32 acres) of rainforest being destroyed every day (source: Save Our Earth), scientists seem to have one possible solution. Science has not yet found an alternative to the environmental benefits of trees. The next step, then, was to engineer trees that will do more for less. More work, less time, that is. They must now grow faster and absorb more pollutants. Since a huge amount of chemicals from herbicides and pesticides are polluting our land and waters, these wonder trees will perhaps even fight their own enemies – read, disease and pests – and make chemicals like herbicides redundant.

These scientists include Dr Steven Strauss of Oregon State University. His contention is that the fiber lignin slows down the growth of trees. So, if he can create trees with less lignin, they will grow faster and absorb more carbon dioxide. Since CO2 is a greenhouse gas that has led to global warming, these trees will fight pollution. This makes them ideal for plantations.

A team of scientists led by Prof Vincent Chiang of the Institute of Wood Research, Michigan Technological University, has reduced lignin in trees. This makes the process of converting trees to paper less polluting, since lignin takes a lot of energy and chemicals to break down. Working on aspen trees for 12 years, they have reduced the stringy lignin with the ‘antisense’ method. This subdues the gene that controls lignin. The scientists cloned this gene and reversed the sequence. So, now, less chemicals are used during papermaking to break down the lignin that makes the trees rigid. Engineered aspens have almost half the natural lignin but 15 per cent more cellulose to strengthen the tree.

If these scientists can work their wonder, this could mean mega money flowing from industry into laboratory. Already, companies like Fletcher Challenge Forests, International Paper, Monsanto Company and Westvaco Corporation plan to pump in U$S 60 million for a five-year joint venture to produce genetically modified trees. Industries sponsoring such research claim that this can ultimately stop the massacre of the remaining natural forests since they can draw only on faster growing BT engineered plantation forests for more timber.

So, Jack’s magic beanstalk may soon be here. That should start off the race for the pot of gold at the other end!

Aayushi Uberoi

[Image Source: http://www.forestopia.net/images/activities/SuperTreeSM.jpg ]