Trees can be genetically engineered not to spread, study says

Avatar By Tyler MacDonald | 11 months ago

Researchers just conducted the biggest field-based study ever on genetically modified forest trees and revealed that genetic engineering techniques can prevent seedling establishment. The results are important because of the recent concerns over the spread of genetically engineered  invasive or exotic trees past their boundaries.

“There’s still more to know and more research to be done, but this looks really good,” said corresponding author Steve Strauss. “It’s very exciting.”

The study examined 3,300 poplar trees across a 9-acre tract over the course of seven growing seasons. The team examined many different approaches for making the trees sterile, with a particular focus on 13 genes that are connected to making flowers or controlling reproduction onset.

The study is groundbreaking not only for its findings but for its massive duration and scope.

“I’m proud that we got the research done,” Strauss said. “It took many years and many people doing it, managing it.”

“People have this fear that GMO trees will take over the world, but these are containment genes that make taking over the world essentially impossible,” he said. “If something is GMO, people assume it’s dangerous—it’s guilty until proven safe in the minds of many and in our regulations today. In contrast, scientists say the focus should be on the trait and its value and safety, not the method used.”

Strauss also highlighted the fact that newer genetic techniques like CRISPR make it much easier to create contained trees more efficiently.

He also suggests that “the work focused on pollen and seeds, but poplar can also spread vegetatively—for example by root sprouts. But those are far slower, much narrower in distance, and far easier to control in and around plantations.”

The findings were published in Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology.