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From Farm to Forest: The Road Ahead of the Genetically Modified Tree

From Farm to Forest: The Road Ahead of the Genetically Modified Tree Inquiry

For more than 30 years, American farmers have been planting genetically modified crops. Researchers are now working to transfer the technology from farms to forests by releasing genetically modified trees in the wild. These trees were transformed to carry genes that are resistant to pests.


A report released by the National Science, Engineering, and Medical School recently showed that the regulatory and research challenges facing this genetically modified tree will make the transfer process more difficult. However, the authors of the report stated that the potential of genetically modified engineering to promote forest health is showing bright prospects, thus ensuring further research.



According to Steven Strauss, a plant geneticist at Oregon State University, unfortunately, commercial interests have hurt research on genetically modified trees.


He has worked with the company to oversee the genetically modified trees he developed in the field. Today, Strauss says that very few companies allow the planting of these trees on their land, as doing so would cause the company to lose certification from agencies including the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. Many home consumers will not buy their wood if they are not certified, such as home improvement stores. These certifications are designed to demonstrate that wood is grown and harvested in a responsible manner.


In response to climate challenges and invasive pests, concerns about forest health are increasing. Disease outbreaks and infections are normal in the woodland, but climate change and increasing international trade and travel have allowed non-native pests and diseases to penetrate local forests.


According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), about 7% of the country’s forests or land with large numbers of trees will lose 1/4 of their vegetation from 2013 to 2027 due to pests and diseases.


Traditionally, plant breeders have solved this problem by breeding new populations of trees that grow naturally and are resistant to disease. But some researchers are cultivating genetically modified trees that carry genes that are more resistant to pests.


Perhaps the best done is the plant geneticist William Powell and his collaborators in the University of New York. The Powell team is trying to recover the American chestnut. This is a tree that is solemn and loved by breeders and was once the dominant species in the eastern US forest. At the turn of the 20th century, the American chestnut was deeply damaged by the invasive “Chestnut” fungus and is now largely extinct. This fungus secretes an acid that kills plant cells.


Over the past 40 years, the Powell team has transferred a gene from wheat to the American chestnut, which can make the latter resistant to the acid. Powell has consulted the USDA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration about the possibility of transplanting such trees into the wild. “This is a new thing for every department.” Referring to these government agencies, Powell said, “There is also more challenging.”


The latest report points to several unique challenges facing genetically modified trees. Unlike crops that are usually harvested in a few months, genetically modified trees can survive in the wild for decades and may migrate out of the border without being discovered. According to the authors of the report, some genetically modified trees can even escape regulation, just as some GM crops have encountered due to gaps in relevant regulations.


In 2014, Brazilian regulators almost approved a modified transgenic eucalyptus that grew faster than natural eucalyptus. Dario Grattapaglia, a plant geneticist at Brasilia’s state-owned research company, Brazil’s Agricultural Research Institute, said that in the initial test, the tree grew 25% faster than normal eucalyptus, but the results were carried out elsewhere in Brazil. The test did not hold, and it was difficult to sell such wood, and the project eventually failed.


Grattapaglia also expressed doubts about the use of genetically modified trees to fight disease. Disease resistance is often controlled by tiny contributions from hundreds or even thousands of genes, and it is difficult to solve this problem using genetic engineering.


Grattapaglia believes that considering these uncertainties, the time saved by cultivating disease-resistant plants through genetic modification rather than traditional methods may be exaggerated.

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