Does the idea of genetically modified (GM) trees stir up images of Ents from The Lord of the Rings? Do you find yourself wondering if there are transgenic trees planted in your local forest? If someone were to ask how you feel about planting GM trees in a plantation forest, what would you say?

Okay, let me back up a few steps. This article is about tree biotechnology in Canada. In order to continue reading this article you need to know a few things about biotechnology. DON’T STOP READING. If you already do know, feel free to skip this paragraph. If you need an introduction, or a refresher, please read on.

Genetically modified – we see the phrase often in the news and especially in scientific writing. For a lot of us it stimulates feelings of anxiety, for some hot heads (e.g.: me) it can even stimulate unwanted arguments with say, an unsuspecting roommate (e.g.: old roomy Greg). Nonetheless, it’s a term used to describe the intentional alteration of genetic material (DeoxyriboNucleic Acid, DNA). What a lot of people don’t realize is that even conventional breeding falls under this category! Another often used expression is “transgenic”. Transgenic organisms are those with genetic material from another genus (for example, spruce genes in rose bushes or vice versa). A novel trait is one that is not common in a natural population.

So, like most sciences there is a lot of jargon used to describe biotechnology. What’s important to keep in mind, is that all of these genetic changes fall under the general definition of biotechnology, which consists of the application of science and engineering to the modification of genes.

Tree biotechnology is a growing field of interest and research. Many countries engage in significant tree biotechnology research programs, including Canada. Government agencies such as the Canadian Forest Service (CFS) support tree biotechnology research programs across the nation. This research includes developmental science and the applications of transgenic trees.

Quiz time! Get out your pens and paper. #1 – What is your definition of biotechnology? #2 – Are you surprised to know that tree biotechnology research is occurring in Canada? I’m not going to review the answer to #1, but how about #2. Really, it shouldn’t be that surprising, should it? Forestry is a huge, and hugely important, industry in Canada. Not only are demands for wood products increasing (reduce, reuse, recycle!), but the desire to preserve our natural forests and ecosystems introduces a large pressure on forestry in Canada. The destruction of our forests from pests, such as the pine beetle is a real example of an event driving tree biotechnology research. From this perspective, tree biotechnology has the potential to play an important role in our country’s ability to compete in industry and develop effective forest management programs.

So, the question still remains: What type of tree biotechnology is happening in Canada? Rest assured, it’s not the development of killer trees!

According to the CFS, the goals of tree biotechnology research in Canada include production of healthier trees, increase in tree population density, meeting growing demands for wood products, decrease in loss of natural forests and ecosystems, forest protection using biological pest control, development of techniques and methods to asses the impact of transgenic trees and a sustainable increase in competitiveness of Canada’s forestry industry. Tree biotechnology research under other agencies (commercial and academic) are also looking at developing techniques to propagate and genetically transform trees, the creation and effects of stress tolerance (for example salt and drought tolerance), and the use of naturally occurring or transgenic trees to remove toxic materials from contaminated land. Phew, long list!

A great deal of research (as evidenced by applications for field trials of transgenic trees) involves the production of herbicide and pest-resistant tress. Using traditional biotechnology techniques, trees can be transformed to carry and express genes that protect them against herbicides and natural pathogens. In fact, field trials of pest-tolerant transgenic white spruce were initiated in 2000 by the CFS. Earlier than this, the first Canadian field trial began in 1997 when the CFS planted a small plot of transgenic poplar trees.

So, what are the real risks of transgenic trees? Or, maybe it is more accurate to ask, what are the perceived risks of transgenic trees?

The spread of novel traits to other trees and organisms is a concern expressed by environmentalists, activists, and researchers. For example, pesticide-resistant transgenic trees posses the risk to transfer the resistant gene to pests (potentially resulting in “super bugs”) and other organisms. The transfer of genetic material occurs naturally, though infrequently and rarely of benefit to the organism involved in the transfer. This is referred to as gene flow and is a valid risk arising from genetic engineering. Depending on the genetic modification, however, this risk can increase or decrease. Current field studies are designed to manage and critically monitor this risk, but long-term trials are necessary to better understand this risk.

However, situations in which people counted their seedlings before the seeds germinated (bad science joke?) has already occurred. In China, over 1 million transgenic trees have been planted as a means to slow desertification and restore tree populations. The trees were transgenic for pest resistance and it has since been reported that a lack of control and monitoring has resulted in significant crossing with native tree species. The consequences of which are yet to be determined.

Another proposed risk of planting transgenic trees is the threat to biodiversity. Is this a real risk? It depends who you ask – and right now you are asking a tree biotechnologist! Tree biotechnology can be used to preserve biodiversity, by selecting and growing (in managed plantations) desirable and important trees and avoid the destruction of natural forests. Techniques used in biotechnology can also provide valuable information about where the most genetically diverse populations grow.

Most valid, however, is the potential risk of damaging a natural ecosystem. Tree biotechnologist or not, this is something we should all be concerned about. This damage can come in many forms and degrees of severity, and encompasses gene flow as well as effects to biodiversity. The type of genetic modification, the area where trees are planted, and whether it is within a natural forest or on a plantation, will affect the level of risk. The complex relationships between organisms in an ecosystem make studying the risks of transgenic trees equally as complex, but it is not impossible.

So are we, as a forestry-rich nation, prepared to accept transgenic trees and tree biotechnology? Most Canadians would oppose the idea. Would you? In fact, many Canadians feel that transgenic trees are too risky, and that more research needs to be conducted. How do you feel?

Although commercial applications of transgenic trees will not likely occur in the near future, research is critical to increase our understanding of the implications and applications of tree biotechnology. This includes further development and larger field trials. The potential for improved and more effective forest management programs and increased industrial competitiveness is huge. Likewise is the potential for healthier forests and the reduction of global desertification. Any potential benefit will not be realized without continuing research and expansion of the procedures and practices of tree biotechnology. It is also important to focus on improving public knowledge of tree biotechnology and the applications of transgenic trees (in other words – forward this article to a friend!).

I believe, as an informed citizen and an enthusiastic tree biotechnologist, that tree biotechnology is a promising area of research. Even if we can’t have forests of Ents, this development is necessary if we are going to come close to fully understanding the complexities of tree development, and for moving towards a new era of sustainable forest management in Canada. However, with so much research occurring and a great deal more to do, I still wonder: In Canada, will we ever see the forest for the transgenic trees?