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Trees next biotech crop?

By MICHAEL SMITH, UPI Science News

TORONTO, June 10 (UPI) -- Genetically modified trees would grow faster and yield more wood, but like many other crops would be unable to reproduce without human help, scientists said Monday during the annual meeting of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

Such changes "will add significant value to trees once we are able to do that," said Purdue University Professor Charles Michler, director of the school's Hardwood Tree Improvement and Regeneration Center.

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Other scientists attending the session warned biotech trees could rouse the kind of anger that has been aimed at genetically modified crops, such as corn and soybeans.

"If it's not done right, this could be really controversial," Michael Fernandez, director of science for the Washington-based Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, told United Press International.

Fernandez said people may react better to biotech trees "because they're not eating them."

On the other hand, he said, many of the proposed genetic changes, such as pest resistance, are the same as those that have created controversy with crop plants.

Throughout history, Michler said, humans have domesticated plants, making them larger and more useful to people, but also costing them the ability to protect themselves, with such things as thorns, or to reproduce without human help.

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Humans have not yet domesticated trees, he said, because they take many years to grow, making cross-breeding difficult. But modern genetic techniques can dramatically cut that time, he said.

"One cycle of conventional breeding takes a decade," Michler said. "With genetic engineering, we have a new tree in six months."

Michler said researchers at his institute are studying three general types of genes, which appear to have been altered by conventional breeding in most of the domesticated plants humans now have.

Steven Burke, of the Institute of Forest Biotechnology in Research Triangle Park, N.C., said the public will have many questions about biotech trees.

"Trees have a greater impact on culture and consciousness than any other crop plant," Burke said. "Trees are essential to life on this planet."

Scientists and industry will have to ensure genetically engineered trees do not replace the natural forest, Burke said.

"We accept rows of corn stretching to the horizon," he said. "We would feel differently about rows of loblolly pines stretching to the horizon." The loblolly pine is one of the most commercially valuable trees in the southern United States.

Burke added the natural forest is under increased pressure from logging and it may be that preserving what he called the "trees of tradition" may require intense farming of the "trees of technology."

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In fact, it may be that one of the selling points of biotech trees is that they would take the pressure off the natural forest, while allowing more wood to be harvested, Fernandez noted.

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