CORVALLIS - Oregon State University has received a five-year, $315,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to create the NSF's first research center for genetic engineering of trees, an initiative that will build upon the university's leading programs in this growing segment of biotechnology.
The focus of the program will be on environmental protection - researchers and industrial partners want to ensure that valuable new products which are being created can be used safely in the plantation forests of poplar trees which will probably be the first large scale application of gene research in forestry. Some of those products, scientists say, are nearing commercial potential and a promising future. "Because trees take so long to grow and flower, we're still basically in the Dark Ages with their development, compared to many other agricultural crops," said Steven Strauss, professor of forest science at OSU and director of the new program. "For instance, it took 10,000 years of genetic manipulations to develop the high yield corn varieties that today help feed much of the world. But we can't afford to wait that long to develop the domesticated varieties of plantation trees that can provide the pulp and wood products we need."
The tools of genetic engineering, Strauss said, can be combined with conventional tree breeding techniques to accomplish some important goals in a comparatively short time. This includes trees which can naturally resist insect attack, tolerate environmentally-benign herbicides and grow faster.
Most of the early work, Strauss said, will be done with hybrid poplar and cottonwood trees that, for technical reasons, lend themselves well to genetic engineering and already form the basis for plantations of intensively-managed tree farms in the Pacific Northwest and around the world.
These farms, he said, can reduce timber harvesting pressure on conventional forests while helping to provide structural, fiber, chemical and energy products, as well as a range of environmental benefits such as carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat, air and water protection.
But to accomplish that and bring to commercial use tree products which are already emerging from laboratories at OSU and elsewhere, it will be essential to demonstrate they can be used safely in an open, natural environment, Strauss said.
Towards that end, the new center will focus on several goals. They include:
- Flowering control: ways to speed breeding, induce sexual sterility in the plants and assess the significance of gene dispersal if the trees are not totally sterile.
- Transformation: adapting to trees the gene transfer methods used successfully with other crops.
- Verification and safety trials: field studies done with industry collaborators.
- Disease resistance: using genetic engineering to create tree varieties that resist major pathogens.
The center will build upon a consortium already in place in the OSU College of Forestry, which is now working in close partnership with 12 forest product companies in private industry that help provide an additional $300,000 a year in research support.
Genetic engineering has already made large strides in U.S. agriculture, Strauss said, but to date there has been no commercial use in pulp or timber production. Regulatory approval, patent and licensing fees, environmental concerns and some political opposition have held back such uses, he said.
"Compared to some of the technology already being used in conventional agriculture and forestry, genetically engineered products actually pose very few risks," Strauss said. "But around the world the standards for safety in such matters is being raised to very high levels, and we have to provide the scientific advances and tests which will reassure people that these products are, in fact, quite safe."
By the end of the five-year grant, Strauss said, OSU research programs hope to complete the development of sterility in the genetically engineered poplar trees that have been developed - a step which would go a long way towards addressing the concern about unwanted gene flow into other plant or tree species.
Besides poplar, Strauss said that eucalyptus, sweet gum and radiata pine trees all could be improved in the near term with genetic engineering. One achievable goal, for instance, would be to reduce the level of lignin in trees that makes them more difficult to process for pulp and requires intensive chemical use.
Douglas-fir will probably not be genetically engineered any time soon, Strauss said, because of obstacles presented by its particular genetic makeup.
"On the other hand, the development of forest plantations has doubled worldwide in the past 15 years and is expected to double again in the next 10," Strauss said. "There's a lot we can do there to create better trees for these plantations using genetic engineering, and the new center should be a big force to help move us in that direction."