- Associated Press - Monday, February 10, 2014

SEATTLE (AP) - Sniff the air around Norman Lewis‘ experimental poplars, 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. Because what Lewis and his colleagues at Washington State University are really chasing is the smell of money.

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 potential market for specialty chemicals - many of which are now synthesized from petroleum - is big, said Lewis, director of WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry. He’s already patented some of the technology, which relies on genetic engineering, and created a spinoff company called Elasid.

In the longer term, the profits from high-end products could boost the struggling biofuel industry by helping companies survive what’s called the “valley of death” - the point where firms need to scale up production, but money is hard to come by.

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

“Biofuels don’t provide a compelling economic case at this point in time,” he said. “We’ve been trying for many decades to understand how plants make these special chemicals that can be used in flavorings, fuels and medicinals, and that seemed like the obvious first place to target.”

But failures outnumber successes in the world of green technology, and it remains to be seen whether Lewis and his group will buck the trend.

Extracting chemicals from plants can be very costly, cautioned Oregon State University bioengineer Ganti Murthy. He and his colleagues engineered poplars to produce a component of biodegradable plastics. But they haven’t been able to get the concentrations high enough to make it profitable.

“Economics play a huge part in all of this,” he said.

The use of genetic engineering also adds an element of controversy and layers of regulation that many companies and investors would rather avoid, Murthy pointed out.

No genetically engineered forest trees have been approved for commercial use in the U.S., though the Department of Agriculture is considering an application from a company called ArborGen that has developed a cold-tolerant eucalyptus. (Papaya trees genetically engineered to resist the ring spot virus are grown in Hawaii.)

Activists who firebombed the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture in 2001 mistakenly thought they were targeting genetically engineered poplars. Several environmental groups continue to wage battle against transgenic trees, which they fear will contaminate native forests and raise the risk of fire.

“Trees are not like crop plants,” said Anne Petermann, executive director of the Global Justice Ecology Project, a New York-based group that has called for a ban on GE trees. “We have no idea what the long-term impacts will be and very little idea of the short-term impacts, like interactions with soil microorganisms and wildlife.”

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