Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Genetic engineering may come to Southern U.S. forests in form of non-invasive (?) eucalyptus

Genetic engineering has long been a mainstay in the agricultural sector, but now it may be coming to silviculture, the growing of trees. Forestry giants International Paper Co. and MeadWestvaco Corp. are "planning to transform plantation forests of the southeastern United States by replacing native pine with genetically engineered eucalyptus, a rapidly growing Australian tree that in its conventional strains now dominates the tropical timber industry," Paul Voosen of Greenwire reports for Scientific American.

The companies' joint biotech venture AborGen LLC is hoping to use a controversial gene splice that restricts the eucalyptus trees' ability to reproduce to alleviate fears of the species turning invasive and overtaking native forests. "If such a fertility-control technology -- which has come under fire in farming for fear seed firms will exploit it -- is proven effective, it could open the door to many varieties of wild plants, including weedy grasses, to be genetically engineered for use in energy applications like biomass and next-generation biofuels without fear of invasiveness," Voosen writes.

Already countries like Brazil have used eucalyptus to transform their wood industry. The eucalyptus tree offers a significant upgrade over native southern pines in growth rate, the company told Voosen. Timber consultant Curtis Seltzer, who has studied ArborGen, describes its trees as a "game changer." Currently, only two of ArborGen's experimental eucalyptus stations have been allowed to flower. The company reports little in the way of pollen production, and earlier this month the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently issued a draft approval, subject to public comment, of expansion to 28 sites totaling 330 acres across seven states. (Read more)

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