Genetically modified trees are branching out

Quietly, trees are taking root in the world of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Scientists recently unravelled the genome of the black cottonwood tree, a species of poplar tree. But perhaps the world should have paid attention, because unravelling a genome is a step toward tinkering with it. And that, in the end, could lead to genetically modified forests, explains the Economist.

The principal commercial goals of arboreal genome research are faster growth and more useful wood. The advantage of the former is obvious: more timber more quickly. More useful wood, in this context, mainly means wood that is more useful to the paper industry, an enormous consumer of trees.

Scientists are working with other tree varieties as well, with amazing results:

  • Researchers at Michigan Tech University produced aspens with 45 per cent less lignin (which is removed for paper production) and 15 per cent more cellulose, providing more efficient paper production.

  • Researchers in Sweden discovered a method of producing a hybrid poplar with longer fibres of cellulose, preferred by paper producers to shorter fibres.

  • Hybrid poplars being grown at two sites in France and England have interacted favourably with their surrounding environment.

  • At Forest Research in Rotorua, New Zealand, scientists are adapting a gene for Bt toxin, a natural insecticide which produces pest-resistant varieties of cotton, to the radiata pine to ward off caterpillar infestations.

    The U.S. Department of Energy, sponsor of the cottonwood genome project, hopes that GM trees will grow faster, sequester more carbon from the atmosphere and even produce more biomass for fuel.

    Source: Down in the Forest, Something Stirs, Economist, January 6, 2005.

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    FMF Policy Bulletin/15 February 2005
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