Rose scented trees? Genetic modification could create safe chemical factories

WSU biochemist Norman Lewis inspects cuttings from genetically engineered poplars in a Western Washington greenhouse (CREDIT: Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times).
WSU biochemist Norman Lewis inspects cuttings from genetically engineered poplars in a Western Washington greenhouse (CREDIT: Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times).

Sniff the air around Norman Lewis’ experimental poplars at Washington State University, and you won’t pick up the scent of roses.

But inside the saplings’ leaves and stems, cells are hard at work producing the chemical called 2-phenylethanol — which by any other name would smell as sweet.

Sweeter still is the fact that perfume and cosmetics companies will pay as much as $30 an ounce for the compound that gives roses their characteristic aroma

Born out of the frustrating quest to wring biofuels from woody plants, the WSU project takes a different tack. Instead of grinding up trees to produce commercial quantities of so-called cellulosic ethanol, their goal is to turn poplars into living factories that churn out modest levels of chemicals with premium price tags.

The ideal operation would combine the two ideas, extracting valuable chemicals from engineered plants and using the waste for biofuel. But that’s a long way off, Lewis said.

Read the full, original article: Rose scent in poplar trees? WSU turns to genetic engineering

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