Biomassa & Agroenergia – In appearance, the small planting of 2.2 hectares of eucalyptus trees on a farm in the municipality of Angatuba (SP), is nothing unusual. But differences exist and these trees are cells that received the insertion of a gene of another species, Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant model widely used in genetic experiments. With the change, they become capable of producing 20% more wood in relation to Eucalyptus counterparts.
A small forest of eucalyptus growing GM is one of four experimental plantings of this tree made by genetically modified FuturaGene, a company dedicated to improving the productivity and sustainability of forests grown for market pulp, bioenergy and biofuels. The objective is to evaluate the biosafety of GM to see if they cause interference and impacts on the environment and other vegetables.
The FuturaGene was founded in Israel in 1993 as a company incubated at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, dedicated to the engineering of proteins, with the name of CBD Technologies. In July 2010 she was bought by Brazil’s Suzano Pulp and Paper. The experiments performed in São Paulo, Bahia and Piauí are a necessary step towards the commercial release of genetically modified plants, required by the National Technical Commission on Biosafety (CTNBio), the agency responsible for evaluation in Brazil by GM products. “These four crops that performed in 2012 totaled nine acres,” says Eugenio Ulian, vice president of regulatory affairs FuturaGene. “The goal is to make observations and collect data to meet the requirements of the law and the future of biosecurity submit an application for commercial release CTNBio. Perspective is that the product can be approved for commercial use in about four years.”
The gene was introduced into eucalyptus encodes a specific enzymes that participate in the formation of chemical pulp, the endoglucanase. “The FuturaGene discovered a way, through the expression of the gene of Arabidopsis thaliana for this enzyme in plants, modifying the structure of the cell wall (which is composed of cellulose) of transgenic trees”, said Ulian. “Thus, the exogenous gene causes the cells to deposit more cellulose in the formation of cell walls of the tree, which, as in the case of the eucalyptus species, results in a greater volume of wood.”
The cell wall of a plant is a chemical compound consisting of cellulose, a polymer of glucose units, entangled in other complex polymers such as lignin and hemicellulose. This forms a rigid structure around the plant cell, relaxing only to allow it to increase in size and divide. “The FuturaGene technology makes possible the production of species with modified cell walls capable of accelerating relaxation and reconstitution during normal growth of the tree,” explains Ulian.
“The insertion of the new gene in eucalypt results in accelerated growth and increased productivity.” Are good reasons for the paper industry and energy are attracted by this technology. The cellulose extracted from plant cell walls is the raw material of the whole industrial fiber used to manufacture paper, sheet and timber. Furthermore, generates material for a number of other agricultural or forestry products, including sugars to be used in future in the production of second generation ethanol, or in chemical compounds used in bioplastics. In the case of transgenic eucalyptus developed by FuturaGene, besides producing 20% more cellulose than normal plants – which generate an average of 45 cubic meters per hectare – it can increase the productivity of wood from 30 to 40% for use in other applications such as in bioenergy for example.
Until reaching that genetically modified plant, the FuturaGene come a long way. The early research that led to transgenic eucalyptus, began to be performed shortly after its founding at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Many studies have been conducted with several genes involved in cell wall formation that were cloned and introduced to overexpression in model species such as Arabidopsis own in poplar and eucalyptus in itself,” says Ulian. “The endoglucanase gene was selected for further work because it presented the best results.”
The FuturaGene 12 areas already planted with experimental transgenic eucalyptus. The first crops were conducted in 2006 and 2007 in Israel and Brazil. The work continued after its acquisition by Suzano, with new plantations in Brazil. In 2012, in addition to nine hectares cultivated with genetically modified species original six others were planted with seeds derived from crosses made between transgenic and conventional arrays in order to select clones with improved features for increased productivity.
Since 1998, Suzano also develops projects in partnership with Professor Carlos Alberto Labate, Department of Genetics, College of Agriculture Luiz de Queiroz (Esalq), University of São Paulo (USP). “These works are focused on the biotechnology and functional genomics of eucalyptus,” said Labate. “We’ve had two projects funded by the Program for Support of Research Partnership for Technological Innovation (Pite) FAPESP approved and we are now in the third.” In the first project Pite goal was to develop a methodology for genetic transformation of eucalyptus.
“My PhD student Roberto Esteban González was hired by Suzano and is now the manager of research and development of FuturaGene,” says researcher Esalq, who in January took the role of director of the National Laboratory of Science and Technology of Bioethanol ( CTBE). “The methodology that was developed and patented all the knowledge we generate was somehow transferred to the company. Moreover, today we held frequent meetings and staff training in FuturaGene, which allows us a very good interaction with the company. ‘
Sugar contents – In the second project the researcher Pite Esalq developed several transgenic eucalyptus with altered expression of genes related to carbohydrate synthesis plant. “The goal of the project was to increase the amount of xylan in eucalyptus wood,” he explains. “These are transgenic plants with FuturaGene, which should perform field trials.” The xylan is hemicellulose, a polymer of xylose (a sugar present in wood), which plays an important role in the bleaching of pulps in the pulp and paper properties. Modify the contents of this sugar in the plant for increased production and differentiating properties of pulp and paper produced.
For 2013, plans are FuturaGene of planting 30 hectares with eucalyptus genetically modified tests. “The goal is to test new genetic changes that eventually could lead to other products with the same characteristic of increased productivity already present in the first transgenic eucalyptus, but containing different genes or genetic constructs improved,” says Eduardo José de Mello, vice Brazil president of operations and manager of forest breeding FuturaGene. “Therefore, we believe that the experiments will be used this year for the selection of new products.”
In addition, the company is working in their laboratories to develop species with resistance to pests and diseases and to enable better weed management and improving the quality of the wood. Besides the biosafety tests that performs FuturaGene also being checked the behavior of transgenic eucalyptus cultivation at different spacings. “This information is important for planning future plantings according to their purpose, such as energy production, sheets or cellulose, for example,” says Mello. “Due to the high productivity of transgenic and depending on the purpose of biomass crops may be held at an earlier age, with 5 and a half years.” The conventional eucalyptus only reaches the same productivity at age 7.
Today, according to Mello, Brazil has the highest productivity in the world eucalyptus culture. This superiority was achieved due to the favorable climate and technological development conducted in the country. “The conventional breeding, through the selection and propagation of the best individuals, provided an important contribution to productivity gains, but the trend is that they are increasingly difficult to overcome,” says Mello. “Biotechnology, through the use of transgenics, will be an important tool for Brazil to remain at the forefront of productivity and remain competitive in the market for eucalyptus wood and its derivatives.” Suzano is currently the second largest producer of eucalyptus pulp and the company’s net revenues reached R $ 4.8 billion in 2011, with over 50% of sales to the foreign market follow.
The genetic manipulation of plants may also have a role in the maintenance and preservation of native forests worldwide. According to data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), there are on the planet about 4 billion hectares covered with forest, which represents around 27% of the land area of the globe. It is estimated today that global consumption of wood reaches about 3.4 billion cubic meters per year, expected to increase by 25% by 2020. To meet this demand, the planet’s native forests are felled at a rate of 12 million hectares per year.
A study by the Centre for Environmental Risk Assessment of Genetically Modified Crops (Cera), the ILSI Research Foundation, a foundation that brings together research institutions around the world in 2000 planted forests accounted for only 5% of the world’s forests but contributed about 35% of wood harvested. Since then the area of cultivation of trees increased to 264 million hectares, which represents 6.6% of the world’s jungles. It is estimated that since the late 1980s, when the first transgenic plants were released for commercial cultivation, have been carried out in the world more than 800 field trials with genetically modified trees of about 40 species.
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