Skip to main content
Move the World.
genetically modified poplar trees

Lead Image © Valeriagilardi / Adobe Stock

Over the past 15 years, the number of poplar trees around the world has doubled, covering nearly 9.4 million hectares of land. While these huge poplar plantations are used to create biofuels, paper, and timber, a chemical compound lurking within their leaves — isoprene — means that these trees might be doing more harm than good to the environment. In addition to isoprene alone having emissions levels similar to that of methane, studies have shown that increased isoprene emissions caused by escalated poplar tree cultivation could increase premature human deaths 6% by this year. Isoprene is often considered a necessary evil because it allows the poplar trees to endure environmental stress. However, a new study has found that it may be possible to suppress the creation of isoprene without harming the growth of the trees.

Just Because It's "Natural" Doesn't Mean It's Good

When we think of air pollution, we typically think of CO2-belching automobiles or planes, but sometimes (as is the case with poplars) ugly things come in beautiful packages. Besides helping the trees deal with environmental stressors, such as warmer temperatures, isoprene in the air also reacts to form harmful air pollutants, like ozone and aerosols, and promotes longer lifespans for methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. 

Together, these increased pollutants negatively affect air quality and human health, as well as eat away at the world's global energy budget. 

It's Time to Go Gene Shopping

To see what they could do about this Jekyll and Hyde compound, the team behind the new study looked at two experimental poplar plantations — one in Arizona and one in Oregon — to see whether manipulating the trees' genes to suppress isoprene would negatively impact the trees' overall fitness. 

At the Oregon field site, the team studied 19 different genetic poplar lines (15 of which were designed to suppress isoprene emission) over three years; in Arizona, four poplar varieties, two without isoprene, were studied for four years. 

Isoprene - a chemical compound found in poplar leaves - has emissions levels similar to that of methane.

Throughout these experiments, the team tested the trees' reaction to environmental stressors (such as heat or restricted water), measured their rate of photosynthesis, and evaluated their root biomass. They found very little difference in overall fitness between the poplar trees with isoprene suppression and those without it.

Two Working Theories

While the results show promise for reducing isoprene emissions from poplar trees, the team still isn't quite sure what's going on behind the scenes to create this positive result. But they have a few ideas. 

The first theory is that the trees might simply be compensating for the lack of isoprene by using different chemical pathways to achieve the same level of stress-protection. The second is that most of the poplars' growth takes place during low-stress times (e.g. cooler weather) and that isoprene is naturally less important during these growth periods anyway. 

Did Someone Say CRISPR? 

For this study, the team relied on genetic manipulation of RNA, but they write that future research could benefit from using a DNA manipulation tool, like CRISPR. The authors write that CRISPR would not only be easier to use but would also avoid some of the regulatory hurdles placed on their RNA method, meaning that this approach could be brought to the wider agriculture community much sooner.

Up Next

Environment
The Robot Racing to Study Antarctica’s Massive Ice Melt
The Robot Racing to Study Antarctica’s Massive Ice Melt
Environment
The Robot Racing to Study Antarctica’s Massive Ice Melt
Icefin, a semi-autonomous research vessel, is on a mission to search for clues about one of the continent’s fastest melting glaciers, the Thwaites Glacier.
By Sarah Wells

Icefin, a semi-autonomous research vessel, is on a mission to search for clues about one of the continent’s fastest melting glaciers, the Thwaites Glacier.

Uprising
Tree-Planting Drones Restore Charred Forests
tree-planting drones
Uprising
Tree-Planting Drones Restore Charred Forests
This Seattle startup is bringing new life to charred forests by releasing swarms of smart, tree-planting drones equipped with seeds, mini seedbeds, and cameras.

This Seattle startup is bringing new life to charred forests by releasing swarms of smart, tree-planting drones equipped with seeds, mini seedbeds, and cameras.

Dope Science
Ketamine Explained: Understanding the Special K Drug
special K drug ketamine
Dope Science
Ketamine Explained: Understanding the Special K Drug
Ketamine, known recreationally as the “Special K” drug, is a trance-inducing anesthetic that researchers believe has more powerful uses off the dance floor.

Ketamine, known recreationally as the “Special K” drug, is a trance-inducing anesthetic that researchers believe has more powerful uses off the dance floor.

Why Researchers Built a Robot Snake
Why Researchers Built a Robot Snake
Watch Now
Why Researchers Built a Robot Snake
Believe it or not, there's a good reason this robot snake exists
Watch Now

When building robots, scientists often struggle to perfect the robot's movements. They turn to the natural world in order to solve this problem, finding inspiration from animals such as spiders, dogs, and even humans. However, studies show that even though we live in a world that is largely built for humans, robots that appear to be too "human-like" make people uneasy. Thus, researchers at Carnegie Melon developed a...

Coded
This Research Team Wants to Hack Your Car
This Research Team Wants to Hack Your Car
Watch Now
Coded
This Research Team Wants to Hack Your Car
What happens when an SUV going 75 miles-per-hour down a highway is hacked from a remote computer?
Watch Now

What happens when an SUV going 75 miles-per-hour down a highway is hacked from a remote computer? Two researchers in Pittsburgh want to make sure we never find out. As cars have become more automated, they’re becoming more hackable. But the only way to stop car hacking is to actually learn how to hack into cars and uncover their vulnerabilities.

eSight Lets the Legally Blind See
eSight Lets the Legally Blind See
Watch Now
eSight Lets the Legally Blind See
This legally blind man is seeing his wedding for the first time. 15 years after he got married.
Watch Now

Some people who are legally blind can still see, but images can be blurry and in low contrast. eSight has created a headset that can give sight to the blind through three technologies. First, an HD camera captures video. Second, a built in computer increases contrast and clarity. Third and finally, the image is projected on displays in real time. 15 years after marrying his wife, eSight helped a legally blind man...

Coded
Nico Sell Thinks Hackers Can Be a Force for Good
Nico Sell
Coded
Nico Sell Thinks Hackers Can Be a Force for Good
After criminals hijacked the term, Sell is on a mission to change our perception of hackers.
By Michael O'Shea

After criminals hijacked the term, Sell is on a mission to change our perception of hackers.

The New Space Race
New Space Race Trailer
New Space Race Trailer
Watch Now
The New Space Race
New Space Race Trailer
Meet the next generation of explorers taking us higher and farther than ever before.
Watch Now

In July of 2011, the U.S. suspended its decades-long Space Shuttle program, officially ending an era of space exploration that began over half a century ago. Some have mourned its passing as a sign of the times – as evidence that we could no longer dare to dream. But unbeknownst to many, a new era of private space exploration has already begun... and it’s firing on all cylinders. The New Space Race is the story of a...