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Industry Hugs Biotech Trees

Agriculture: Proponents of genetically modified forests could seek the regulatory green light in four years.

First there were herbicide-tolerant soybeans and worm-resistant corn. Despite the controversy swirling around such genetically engineered crops, they are now planted on millions of hectares of U.S. farmland. And there are growing indications biotech trees will be next.

Three of the world’s largest paper and lumber producers have formed a joint venture, called ArborGen, that hopes to be the first group to commercialize genetically modified trees. ArborGen expects to seek approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other regulatory bodies for mass planting by 2005. Based in Summerville, SC, the company has access to the vast research base of its corporate parents: International Paper, Westvaco, and Fletcher Challenge Forests, plus a New Zealand-based genomics company, Genesis Research and Development.

What tree is a likely first candidate? ArborGen isn’t saying. But the venture has access to several technologies for tree modification. Among them are ways to suppress genes that produce lignin, a plant component that must be chemically removed to make paper. Other technologies include ways to make trees herbicide tolerant and to minimize crossbreeding risks by controlling their ability to reproduce.

Trees headed for the market from ArborGen include genetically modified hardwoods like poplar and sweet gum, used for high-quality paper products. ArborGen also believes it can stock plantations of modified pine and eucalyptus trees, workhorse species that can be used for building products or ordinary paper pulp. “I think the first product we put out will be a very important product, not only for technical performance, but in how we are perceived,” says Maud Hinchee, the newly hired chief technology officer at ArborGen. “We want to make sure that when we launch a product, it will be perceived by the public as being safe and beneficial.”

Environmental groups are already concerned. “There’s a big difference between genetically modified crop plants and trees, in the sense that trees are perennial and live a long time,” says Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Will tree roots pump out a genetically modified toxin for years and years? And what happens if you have insect-resistant trees spreading genes to relatives that live outside, in unmanaged ecosystems? There are many ecological issues with [modified] trees that need to be carefully studied.”

To prepare itself for the emerging debates over biotech-tree safety, the industry has joined with the state of North Carolina-a center for both biotech research and the $3.2 billion forest-products industry-to form the Institute of Forest Biotechnology, a Research Triangle Park, NC-based think tank chartered to promote the societal benefits of modified trees and address environmental concerns. Steven Burke, the institute’s director, argues fast-growing, efficient stands of modified trees could better serve the needs of the paper and wood industries while reducing chemical pollution from papermaking and leaving more wild forests alone.

The think tank will have a lot to think about: ArborGen isn’t the only group developing biotech trees (see table at left). In the past decade, the USDA has given 136 approvals-most in the last three years-for small outdoor test plots, some of which include fruit trees. David Wheat of the Bowditch Group, a Boston-based agricultural technology consulting firm, says work is also progressing in labs and testing fields as far flung as Canada, Australia and South Africa. Genetically modified trees, he says, “are reaching the point of practical application. They’ll enter the commercial sphere gradually, because of regulatory and public concerns, but also because you don’t plant a million [hectares] the first year out. But, he added, “I don’t think we are going to see genetically engineered Time magazine pages until 10 years from now.”

Sampling of U.S. Research of Genetically Modified Trees

Organization Species Desired Trait
Michigan Tech, MI Poplar Reduced lignin content
Westvaco, NY Pine, sweet gum Altered plant development
Exelixis Plant Sciences, OR Apple Altered fruit ripening
International Paper, NY Sweet gum Herbicide resistance
University of Wisconsin, WI Poplar, spruce Resistance to moths
Cornell University, NY Apple Disease resistance
Oregon State University, OR Poplar Insect resistance, herbicide tolerance, reproductive control

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