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Promise, perils of genetically modified trees

Public fears may limit use of OSU's new dwarf poplars


by: COURTESY OF OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY  - Poplar trees in the center are of normal height, but shorter ones on either side are semi-dwarfs created by OSU researchers. The findings could prove useful, but some scientists say opposition to genetically modified organisms tends to hold back commercial applications. Oregonians might be comfortable with the idea of a petite poplar. But would they be put off by the thought of a stumpy Douglas fir? 

Horticultural scientists at Oregon State University have developed dwarf versions of common trees that could be a boon to the forestry industry. 

Using genetic engineering, rather than the slower process of traditional plant breeding, OSU forest genetics professor Steven Strauss and his colleagues transplanted genes that affect growth in stands of 2-year-old poplar trees in a university test nursery.

The team published a paper recently with some interesting findings.

The semi-dwarf poplars turned out to have greater biomass in the root system and their trunks were thicker and sturdier than average. They also had a higher ratio of wood to bark.

The findings could be of interest to forestry companies that grow poplars for harvest after two years for energy (burning or making biofuel), or 10 years for making paper or 15 years for solid wood. 

"A company like Greenwood Resources can spend 15 years breeding the most productive poplars, then a big wind storm comes along and blows a lot of them down," Strauss says. "We expect trees that have bigger root systems and are a little less tall will stand up to storm systems."

Another discovery is that the semi-dwarf trees do well when planted together, but not when mixed in with larger trees, where they must compete for light and water. This means they are unlikely to "escape" their plantation and thrive in the wild.

"Trees do compensate,” Strauss says. “They sense the change in the quality of life when they have competitors nearby."

Research also showed that the trees were "cold hardy" and could survive winter. 

The team was more interested in how trees would behave than in creating an agricultural product, Strauss says. 

He’s skeptical about any potential commercial applications from the new findings because of the public's low opinion of genetic engineering, especially of food. 

"There are interest groups who are freaked out about it and doing what they can to stop it,” he says. “Forest trees don't get a free ride."

The Forest Stewardship Council, which certifies environmentally friendly management practices, prohibits the research of genetically modified trees, so commercial planters may be reluctant to touch them for fear of losing their certification. 

Strauss also sees big market and regulatory obstacles.

"Even if the tree is a better tree, it costs too much to overcome the regulation red tape, then marketing red tape. You need a blockbuster product like a Roundup-ready soybean” to make money, he says.

An ornamental dwarf Doug fir or poplar could be grown in a pot on someone's deck. But again, because of public perception, nurseries might balk at selling it for fear of a customer backlash.

In Oregon's Coast Range, a fungal disease called Swiss needle cast has afflicted Doug firs. Strauss believes conventional breeding might not be able to fight the disease in time to save the trees. It would not be possible to harvest the benefits for 20 to 60 years.  

"That's an ideal target for genetic modification,” he says. “But because of the obstacles, no one's looking at it."

For Strauss, it comes back to what he sees as wrong-headed public perception.

"People are familiar with clones and varietals: just think of Macintosh and pinot noir." 

He blames large groups such as Greenpeace for spreading fear of genetic engineering. "They are well-funded, they have a sophisticated PR machine a lot like a political campaign. There's this ideological and religious fervor coming out of Japan and Europe, that if we could just go back to all-natural agriculture we can feed the world. So in Africa, farmers have been scared out of their wits by Greenpeace. If you associate (genetic engineering) technology and science with big corporations and imperialism, you can scare the wits out of anyone." 

Ralph Scorza is a research horticulturist and lead scientist working on the genetic improvement of fruit crops unit at a federal research station in West Virginia. To him, genetic engineering is above all quicker than traditional breeding (of, say, peaches and plums) — five years as opposed to about 20.  

"We can take a fruit tree that people like to grow and say, 'There's only one problem, it's susceptible to a disease so we have to spray it.' We could just put in a resistant gene so you wouldn't have to spray it so much."

This is urgent, Scorza figures, because of the rapid change brought on by climate change and globalization. Pests and diseases are spreading rapidly and coming back stronger.

Genetic engineering, he says, is just one tool in his toolbox, which includes traditional methods of crossing plants.

Scorza says when he talks about his work, if people keep an open mind he gets a good reception.

"I don't know where the fear comes from. Maybe it's a bit of fear of the unknown. A lot of (genetic engineering) is used in medicine. To create a virus-resistant peach, we put a non-infectious piece of the virus itself in the peach. People understand that — it's vaccination."

His is not a lucrative corner of the field of genetic engineering research. 

"Working in fruit is not a huge area of science. It's long-term work and it's hard to move from job to job. It takes a whole career to see the effects and get a product." 

Strauss at OSU also knows this part of his research might wither on the vine.

"I think this work is going nowhere after this paper," Strauss says. "We're just going to walk away from it for the rest of my career. It's not clear anyone could every use it, so no one's going to invest in more research."