FuturaGene looks to better biomass yields

Mike May and Stanley Hirsch

The Brazilian organisation is involved in a long-term project to transform the global competitiveness and sustainability of woody biomass production.

As the controversy between ‘food vs. fuel’ continues to dominate the bio-energy sector, many organisations are striving to make bio-energy more sustainable. One Brazilian organisation – FuturaGene – is involved in a long-term project to transform the global competitiveness and sustainability of woody biomass production. And if successful with trials involving genetically modified eucalyptus, the company claims its methods could significantly improve current biomass yield targets.

Whilst many hope that large-scale bio-energy programs will make a significant contribution to the global renewable energy matrix, energy security in resource-poor countries also needs to be tackled. Producing power from energy-dense plantation forestry is one area that could represent a low entry barrier to improving energy security for any country with the right growing conditions. And experience gained in countries like Brazil and China could help facilitate this technology transfer.

But if using bio-energy to produce fuels and generate electricity is ever to escape the controversy surrounding the conflicting use of land – and indeed become the energy game changer that many hope – the feedstock industry around the world needs to deliver the right messages to policy makers and civil society stakeholders.

This message is a simple one, but difficult to realise in practice: That biomass supplies are sustainable, and subject to stringent resource analysis. This would be a start in putting to rest high-profile controversies over the harvesting of woody biomass, and how it impacts on the ‘food-versus-fuel’ conflicts.

With this in mind, much research is being undertaken into ways that feedstocks can be grown more sustainably. Continued R&D into fast growing non-food crop feedstocks has now become a recognised global priority. And with this vision in mind, a project in Brazil, being undertaken by FuturaGene (acquired by Suzano Pulp and Paper in 2010) is looking to Genetic Modification (GM) to boost the yield in woody plants, principally eucalyptus.

The Project – Improving the competitiveness of Brazilian eucalyptus through the development of plants genetically modified – has just received direct Government support; in November 2011, the Brazilian Government's Science and Technology Ministry's FINEP agency awarded Suzano a grant of US$1.2m). This will be matched by funding of US$2.4m from Suzano.

The current project is the culmination of over 30 years of conventional eucalyptus breeding expertise at Suzano, combined with over 15 years experience in biotechnology at FuturaGene. And the recent financial boost has coincided with FuturaGene's regulatory trials of a novel, yield-enhancing trait in eucalyptus – the first for GM yield-enhanced eucalyptus in Brazil.

Increasing the yield

FuturaGene's expertise in trait improvement methodologies centres around its ability to insert genes into the plant cell; whose protein products are then able to mediate more rapid relaxation and recrystallisation of plant cell walls (Cell Wall Technology) during plant cell growth and division. This, says FuturaGene, enables faster plant growth.

And according to the company, GM plants derived from this procedure have consistently been shown to display considerably enhanced yield – in the case of eucalyptus growing in Brazilian field conditions up to ten's of percentage points above original parent varieties.

Whilst this is a “significant technical breakthrough for plantation forestry”, the results, according to the company, demonstrate some of the first examples of successful yield enhancement in any commercial GM crop. Because Cell Wall Technology specifically targets the extremely rigid plant cell wall, some genes are being used specifically to increase cell wall permeability to enable cheaper and more environmentally friendly downstream processing – whether for pulp or bioethanol production.

FuturaGene is also developing GM eucalyptus clones with the potential to resist pest and pathogen threats, under a “yield protection” program. The current worldwide increase in the spread of insects and fungi harmful to eucalyptus, combined with climate change, has the potential to create unprecedented pest and disease outbreaks in new geographies. And yield protection is expected to become one of the main targets for breeding programs to engineer the resilience that will be required to cope with future environmental shocks and stresses.

As with the Cell Wall Technology, the GM approach offers an opportunity to rationally design new traits that are not possible through conventional means – where a limited pool of resistance genes has hampered approaches for pest and disease resistance in conventional breeding programs to date.

The chemical control of pests and diseases in plantations is also not a viable option; from both an economical and environmental perspective; the advantages presented by GM approaches to pest and disease control are one of the few realistic options available, believes FuturaGene. Using GM technology, the company says it is able to introduce genes into the eucalyptus (that have highly-specific pest target profiles), as well as screen for novel resistance enhancement. Such GM approaches under evaluation at FuturaGene are essential, in order to go beyond the limits of conventional breeding, says the company.

Breeding programs

FuturaGene says its Cell Wall Technology provides a “more targeted, rapid and environmentally sustainable approach to yield enhancement compared to conventional breeding techniques.” The project to date has reportedly confirmed that conventional plantation management practices can be applied – irrespective of whether the trees are GM or not.

GM approaches to yield enhancement, as well as pest and disease resistance, are therefore proving to be a valuable extension to Suzano's breeding program, which focuses on energy-dense biomass using specific crosses of eucalypt varieties. This breeding program has produced a promising set of hybrids that:

  • Have high lignin content;
  • Can be planted at very high density;
  • Have a drastically compressed life cycle of 2-3 years from planting to harvest;
  • And have improved pelleting characteristics.

Coupled with improvements in wood pelleting technology achieved by Suzano Renewables, the company claims it will be able to generate around 1 million tones of wood pellets from just 38,000 hectares; this could support a thermo electric power plant of 220 MW (assuming an efficiency of 37%), says the company. And the Cell Wall Technology will provide a significant upside to this production capacity.

Suzano has already initiated an integrated project in North East Brazil that will include sustainable energy plantation forests and the world's largest wood pelleting capacity for the off take derived from these plantations.

Whilst regulatory trials for GM tree events may be costly and time-consuming, they establish not only biosafety assurance, but also provide an invaluable vehicle for the development of science-based criteria and indicators regarding GM feedstock sustainability.

Recognition of the value of intensively-managed plantation forestry (IMPF) in ecosystem service and biodiversity protection is beginning to emerge, through the case studies of the WWF-led New Generation Plantation Program for example. By significantly enhancing plantation yield per hectare, the Cell Wall Technology has the potential to further reduce pressure on natural forests and enhance the carbon sequestration capacity of managed plantations.

The integration of yield-enhancing technology also means that further enlargement of the 0.7% of arable land presently used for plantation forestry in Brazil can be minimised, despite growing demand for forestry and forest products. Additionally, by Brazilian Law, a proportion of all owned land used for forestry purposes must be set aside as legally protected reserves – in the case of Suzano plantations this is 37% – above the legal requirement. Such mosaic planting provides ecological corridors and refuges for wildlife and the preservation of ecosystem services, whilst integrated livestock and forestry plantation (ILFP) management practices established by Suzano provide mixed income for farmers.

Other international FuturaGene research

FuturaGene continues to invest in GM tree research at facilities in Brazil, China and Israel.

In December 2011, it inaugurated a dedicated research centre in Shanghai to support its alliances with the Chinese Academy of Forestry, Guangxi Academy of Sciences, Beijing Forestry University and other institutions.

China, like Brazil views GM plantation forestry as a strategic asset, and although complex for foreign companies, the industry has been prioritised through key legislation. China aims to reverse desertification (a problem that affects 400 million people and 18% of China's land surface); restore saline soil (in China there are 99 million hectares of land affected by high saline and alkaline conditions); accelerate the development of the forestry sector; and protect forest ecosystems.

About the authors: Mike May is consultant on public policy to FuturaGene and Stanley Hirsch is Group ceo of FuturaGene, a wholly owned subsidiary of Suzano Pulp and Paper, and has led the company since its inception as Cellulose Binding Domain Technologies (CBD Technologies), a protein-engineering spin-off from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1993.

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