Beneath the sturdy bark of a tree is a layer of tissue called the cambium—the command center and driving force behind a tree’s outward growth.
But until now, the genes and molecular pathways for controlling this growth, called secondary growth, have been largely unknown.
In a study published today in Current Biology, scientists report that they’ve figured out how to tap into the command center to create trees that grow faster and sprout more leaves by encouraging cells to divide faster.
The team discovered two genes, PXY and CLE, that control outward growth in the tree trunk. By they manipulated these genes in poplar trees so they would over-express, they found they could coax the trees into growing twice as fast as normal. The result were poplars of a certain age that were taller, wider, and had more leaves. “Our results demonstrate that the PXY-CLE pathway has evolved to regulate secondary growth and manipulating this pathway can result in dramatically increased tree growth and productivity,” the researchers write.
Fast-growing trees may have a number of practical applications. First, scientists may be able to use them as a prolific source of renewable source of biofuels. They could also be used for ultra-productive plantations that could produce the same amount of timber or pulp on half the land.
If corresponding genes are found in other species, modified trees could be used around the globe to more rapidly lock up CO2 emissions. Those trees could then be left standing, used in construction, or burned in a biomass power plant with carbon capture and sequestration equipment (CCS), which would allow us to permanently store the tree’s stored carbon beneath the Earth’s surface. (CCS is still in development, though, with engineers working on refining the technology.)
More broadly, this discovery could help scientists learn how plants react to various climate-related challenges. “Understanding how the plants respond to environmental signals and to what extent we are able to manipulate them to override these signals is likely to be very important for continued improvements to crop performance,” Turner told Nature World News. With the current drought in California threatening a not insignificant portion of the food supply in the United States, more discoveries like this can’t come soon enough.