Researchers are developing better wood for biorefineries

Increasing the amount of a polymer known as callose, a substance natural to plants, boosts wood breakdown into sugars. This process may facilitate the utilisation of wood in biorefineries. A research group led by Professor Yrjö Helariutta is the first to succeed in tailoring an entirely new kind of polymer into wood.

Based on a gene discovery previously made in thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), Professor Yrjö Helariutta’s research group at the University of Helsinki has produced poplars whose wood contains more callose than usual. Small amounts of callose occur naturally in plants, for example, in cytoplasmic channels connecting cells to one another, cell division and during defence response to pathogens.

The researchers were able to increase the share of callose in wood from 0.1 per cent to as much as roughly five per cent. Preliminary findings show that increasing the callose concentration in wood has no effect on growth, but it does alter other wood properties to a certain extent.

“It appears that the amount of callose affects the interaction between the cellulose, lignin and hemicellulose in the wood. Callose-rich wood seems to promote the breakdown of wood into sugars. This has significance when planning the processing of wood in biorefineries,” Professor Yrjö Helariutta says.

Helariutta has received an 18-month Proof of Concept grant from the European Research Council (ERC) for the APPLICAL project, in which his group investigates how callose-rich wood could be utilised in a range of important industrial processes.

“We are also looking into how the technique we have developed could be combined with existing techniques that alter other wood properties from the perspective of, say, biorefineries.”