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.

Mark Lange and colleagues in the Institute for Biological Chemistry literally dissected the machinery by which loblolly pine produces oleoresin. Key aspects of their work utilized WSU’s Franceschi Microscopy and Imaging Center, administered through the College of Arts and Sciences.

Before the arrival of petroleum-derived alternatives in the 1960s, the sticky, fragrant oil-resin mixture was central to the naval stores industry and products ranging from paint and varnish to shoe polish and linoleum.

Meanwhile, the international demand for oleoresins has risen. Naturally occurring oleoresins—from sources like loblolly pine—are often preferred. A 2016 analysis by Grand View Research predicted that global sales of oleoresin will approach $1.7 billion by 2022.

The Lange lab’s discovery of how it is made “could inspire new engineering approaches for the production of renewable, green chemicals,” says Dutch biologist Harro Bouwmeester in a commentary accompanying Lange’s research in the Journal of Experimental Botany.

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