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'This could result in robust pine tree genotypes that can compete with classical oil-based chemistry for the production of green chemicals through forest plantations.'

COURTESY PHOTO: FLORIDA MEMORY PROJECT - Pine trees, like these in Florida, produce a resin that can be converted into turpentine. WSU researchers have found a way to reverse-engineer the resin, which could create more green chemicals and fuel.Washington State University researchers have reverse engineered the way a pine tree produces a resin, which could serve as an environmentally friendly alternative to a range of fossil-fuel based products worth billions of dollars, the university announced in mid-December.

According to the university's research, Mark Lange and colleagues in the Institute for Biological Chemistry literally dissected the machinery used by the loblolly pine to produce oleoresin. The sticky, fragrant oil-resin mixture has been used in the naval stores industry, according to university officials, and such products as paint, varnish, shoe polish and linoleum.

As international demand for oleoresins increased, the loblolly pine's oleoresins were preferred for the chemicals. Grand View Research predicts that by 2022, global sales of oleoresin will be about $1.7 billion.

New 'green chemicals'

LANGELange's discovery of how the resin is made "could inspire new engineering approaches for the production of renewable, green chemicals," according to Dutch biologist Harro Bouwmeester, writing a commentary that accompanied Lange's research in the Journal of Experimental Botany.

Lange's research was aided by associates Glenn Turner and Justin Fischedick, research associate Amber Parrish and Ph.D. student Jordan Zager.

Lange's study focused on how the loblolly pine created oleoresin as a defense against insects and pathogens. The tree stores the chemical in resin ducts to keep from poisoning itself. To see how oleoresin is made, WSU reported that Lange concentrated on cells around the ducts, cutting them out with a laser-equipped microscope.

Using the amplified genes from several thousand cells, WSU reported that Lange and his colleagues identified genetic sequences that produce certain enzymes and matched them to reactions that could lead to the creation of oleoresin.

With a better knowledge of the reactions, and their genetic underpinnings, WSU reported that researchers could screen trees for genes that make them better producers of the resin. Or they could replicate the resin-producing metabolic pathway in other organisms.

"Ultimately," said Bouwmeester in his commentary, "this could result in robust pine tree genotypes that can compete with classical oil-based chemistry for the production of green chemicals through forest plantations."

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