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Biotech eucalyptus doesn’t mind the cold

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Scientists have succeeded in producing a variety of genetically modified eucalyptus suited to withstand cooler temperatures. This opens the possibility of more widespread planting of these trees and of better economy in their industrial use.

Native to Australia, eucalyptus trees occupy in the meanwhile about twenty million hectares worldwide in plantations. They may shoot to a height of 25 metres after three-and-a-half years and their fine-fibred wood is a desirable raw material for papermaking. Eucalyptus also is used as an energy source.

Since eucalyptus trees are very vulnerable to frost, their cultivation in the cooler parts of the world to date has been impossible. Paper manufacturers in the northern zones are forced to accept either long transport routes or other types of raw material.

"Green biotechnology" may facilitate eucalyptus as an efficient and renewable raw material even in regions with cool winters. Scientists at the ArborGen firm have transferred a gene from a cold-tolerant plant that makes eucalyptus less sensitive to frost. In field trials, the trees withstood temperatures as low as –6°C without collapse. This would allow, for example, cultivation in the USA to expand from the southernmost tip of Florida to the entire south coast.

Currently, ArborGen is planning release trials with a total of more than 100,000 of the genetically modified eucalyptus trees at 29 locations in the USA. Their agro-industrial properties will be scrutinised more closely and, additionally, research is taking place towards trees with faster growth and improved wood constitution. Goal of the firm is more wood from a smaller area. Increased production of renewable raw materials without taking up more land space may save resources and promotes sustainability.