Biotechnologists Engineer "Dream Trees"
August 4, 2000
Within the next five years, expect to hear good news about trees. Biotechnicians at universities and a few biotechnology companies are perfecting the art of injecting novel genes into the cells of trees to improve them in ways fruit growers and foresters never dreamed of.
- Genetically altered apple trees in a western Canadian orchard kill insects on contact, without chemical sprays -- and produce perfect fruit that doesn't turn brown even hours after being cut.
- In Israel, poplar trees have been made to grow so fast that they could eliminate the need to log old-growth forests -- while gobbling up enough carbon dioxide to gladden the hearts of global warming theorists.
- In North Carolina and Minnesota, experimental trees containing novel woody fibers can be digested into pulp without the tons of toxic chemicals that today pollute rivers around paper mills.
- The U.S. Agriculture Department has already approved outdoor field tests for genetically-engineered apple, grapefruit, pear, persimmon, pine, plum, poplar, spruce, sweet gum and walnut trees at various locations around the country.
Dozens of additional outdoor tests are under way in at least 16 countries -- notably Chile, Uruguay and Indonesia.
Wood products amount to a $400 billion global industry. And the demand for paper and pulp products is expected to increase by 50 percent in the next two decades -- exceeding supplies by 2010.
Opponents of biotechnology are already protesting tree experiments, however. Zeneca Plant Science, a major European biotechnology concern, recently abandoned its foray into biotech forestry after protesters ruined its sole stand of trees last summer. Monsanto and Royal Dutch Shell have also quit the field in the past two years, citing unspecified "business" considerations.
Source: Rick Weiss, "Biotech Research Branches Out," Washington Post, August 3, 2000.
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