Fast growing tree species like poplar and willow have great potential as a biomass source for the production of lignocellulosic ethanol, a second generation biofuel. The conversion to ethanol is very difficult due to the presence of lignin in wood. Lignin physically interferes with the enzymatic breakdown of cellulose to glucose, which is the first step in the conversion. Already a number of years ago researchers at VIB-UGent made poplar trees with alterations in the lignin biosynthesis. Certain genes in this biosynthesis were downregulated resulting in trees with a 20% lower amount of lignin. Experiments with wood produced in a greenhouse showed that this wood produces 50% more ethanol than ordinary poplar wood. In a greenhouse, however, trees are not subject to seasons, storms and other stresses, nor do they root in a normal soil. This is why field trials are necessary to find out whether the poplar trees are able to produce wood that is more easily converted to bio-ethanol also under real life conditions.
Stage of Development
Greenhouse and confined field trials.
Reasons for Block/Delay
A field trial application was submitted in the autumn of 2007 to start a field trial in 2008. This application was refused in May 2008 by the federal Belgian authorities, based on three arguments: (1) the application was incomplete, (2) the trees contained the HPT antibiotic resistance marker, and (3) there were negative public comments on the production of biofuels. All three arguments were later dismissed by the Council of State: if the application had been incomplete, the authorities should not have started the application procedure (the application had been judged valid and complete), the HPT gene is approved for use in field trials by both the Belgian Biosafety Advisory Council and EFSA, and general public comments that are not about safety cannot be used to refuse an individual trial application. The Council of State suspended the refusal and after some negotiations VIB succeeded in securing a permit for the field trial in the beginning of 2009. The field trial started in May 2009 with a delay of one year.
Scientific research is a very international undertaking with fierce competition. One year of delay may mean that others catch up or take a leading position, meaning that you will no longer be able to produce a high impact scientific paper. This may have a negative impact on the institute’s score in evaluations, which may put pressure on future funding. In this particular case also valuable tax payer’s money has been lost due to unnecessary extra regulatory activities and lawyer’s costs to prepare and defend a case at the Council of State (tens of thousands of euros).
Cost of Research
Over the years several millions of euros have been invested in the poplar research program.
Reference to Publication
VIB Website www.vib.be/poplar
Birch H. (2009) GM poplars to grow next door. Nature Biotechnology 27: 107
Custers R. (2009) First GM trial in Belgium since 2002. Nature Biotechnology 27: p.506
Prof. Dr. Wout Boerjan, VIB Department of Plant Systems Biology and UGent Department of Plant Biotechnology and Genetics