Plan to plant genetically engineered trees throughout US to save dying forests

Inserting genes to protect against foreign diseases and pests could bring species back from brink of extinction

Josh Gabbatiss
Washington DC
Saturday 16 February 2019 15:04 GMT
Many tree species across America are threatened by introduced pests
Many tree species across America are threatened by introduced pests

Plans are under way to plant swathes of genetically engineered trees across the ailing forests of North America in a bid to save them from the ravages of disease and pests.

Species such as the ash tree and whitebark pine have faced catastrophic declines of up to half their populations after creatures introduced from overseas tore through their defences.

With some trees driven to the brink of extinction, some scientists have called for drastic action to help forests fight back against the pests.

“The reason they are so deadly is that native species are not genetically adapted to defend against them,” explained Dr Ines Ibanez, an ecologist from the University of Michigan.

This problem can be fixed by providing trees with the genetic tools they need to fight their attackers.

“People are interested in exploring the potential of biotechnology, which could be used to introduce a specific trait unto a tree species or make it resistant or tolerant a disease or pest,” said Dr Jason Delborne, a social scientist at North Carolina State University

While genetic engineering normally takes place within tight restrictions, these GM trees would be created with the express intention of spreading far and wide.

This prompted the US government to enlist Drs Delborne and Ibanez along with other collaborators from across the academic spectrum to assess whether the nation should embark on such an enormous leap into the unknown.

Their work has come at a crucial time, as efforts to genetically modify trees are already under way.

Perhaps the most successful project has been one targeting the American chestnut, which was all but wiped out by a fungal blight in the mid-1900s.

Chestnuts used to make up around a quarter of the trees in eastern US forests, but after 6 billion were killed the remnant population is nothing but stumps.

But the tree may have found a saviour in the form of a pioneering project led by Professor William Powell at SUNY-ESF, which has created chestnut trees with an extra gene from wheat that detoxifies the fungus.

Tests have shown these new strains are resistant to the blight, providing hope for the future of the species.

“The goal for them is to make it deregulated so they could plant it freely in the environment, then over a decade you could plant chestnut tees and they would spread and repopulate the forest. That’s the vision,” said Prof Powell.

Unlike many GM species, these trees would not be commercial given the primary end goal is simply to restore nature to its former glory and not make money.

Nevertheless, such technologies could still face a backlash, and the scientists presenting their work at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington DC urged caution.

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“Some people love that idea, others say ‘You want to release a GMO in wild forests, are you kidding?’ said Dr Delborne.

Dr Ibanez said a broad range of measures will be necessary to save the nation’s forests, including breeding programmes and the search for natural genetic resistance in populations. While genetic engineering cannot yet be viewed as a silver bullet to solve the problem, it may still prove essential.

“We may start losing species quite fast, and want to have this in our toolbox,” she said.

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