The Swedish company SweTree Technologies is developing genetically engineered trees as environmentally friendly alternative sources of fuel.
Mission: To improve the yield and robustness of tree crops such as spruce and eucalyptus using selective breeding and genetic engineering. This would help to boost the production of products such as biofuels and wood from each tree.
The looming threat of climate change is increasing the pressure to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels. New technologies to produce fuel from plants provide an alternative, but the shifting climate could also disrupt crop growth, compounding the problem. SweTree Technologies aims to tackle the issue by engineering trees to have higher yields of biomass and to resist temperature changes.
“Genetic engineering is one powerful tool in solving the challenge to grow more biomass,” Christofer Rhén, SweTree’s CEO, told me.
To find out which genes they want to target, SweTree first makes mutant strains of trees with modified specific genes and observe the effect this has on traits such as wood formation and speed of growth. Since its founding in 1999, the company has studied over 1,500 genes. So far, SweTree has selected 25 candidate genes to modify tree species such as eucalyptus.
SweTree is also developing an automated method for cloning the best plant varieties via a process called somatic embryogenesis, where a cell from a seed is transformed into an embryonic cell culture from which many plants can be produced. The company is now building a pilot facility to scale up and verify the process.
The goal is commercial production facilities producing 20 million plants each annually. The pilot plant will focus initially on showcasing the technology in spruce, but will eventually produce other species including poplar and eucalyptus trees.
What we think:
Boosting the performance of tree crops could help to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and encourage a changeover to more sustainable sources. SweTree’s approach is different from many biofuel companies, which source biofuels from food crops, and can compete with the production of feed. Along with companies developing biofuels from sources such as algae and bacteria, SweTree’s modified trees could also allow regions of the world with limited arable land to make better use of the land they have.
In spite of the support of the EU with research programs such as Horizon 2020, the technology to make biofuels and other plant-based products still needs time and money to develop. For companies developing genetically engineered plants like SweTree, strict EU regulations also make it hard to develop the technology compared to other parts of the world.
“The regulatory situation makes European forestry companies reluctant to invest in genetic engineering technologies for the future. SweTree is currently working mainly with customers in other parts of the world in the genetic engineering area,” Rhén said. “We see that as unfortunate for European industry, losing competitiveness and for European society losing opportunities in the sustainable shift from oil and coal to a bio-based economy.”
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