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Forest scientists call for acceptance of gene-edited and transgenic trees

Large organizations that certify trees are grown sustainably exclude those considered ‘transgenic.’ Now, researchers around the world demand a change.


More than 100 years ago, chestnut trees were an iconic part of forests across the eastern United States.

But all that changed with the accidental introduction of the chestnut blight fungus, killing most mature trees and reducing the remaining population to small shrubs. For decades, scientists tried to find ways to combat the blight and restore the trees, but none have been successful—until recently.

By incorporating a gene-transfer process during seed production, scientists at the State University of New York College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry are working toward growing a new generation of chestnut trees with greater blight resistance.  The work is part of a large collaboration that includes the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, The Pennsylvania State University, Clemson University and the U.S. Forest Service.

This could be a win for science and the regeneration of the American chestnut, right?

Not so fast.

This new generation of chestnut trees, along with other tree species improved through a process called gene transfer, are not recognized by forest certification organizations. These organizations are important to the industry, because they certify that forests are managed sustainably. This touches a range of products—from the paper in your office printer to the box holding your cereal to the lumber that goes into your house—and includes more than 1 billion acres of forest land around the world.

Now, scientists from across the world, including at the UGA Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, are pushing for a change. In a letter published recently in Science Magazine, 15 experts from the United States, Canada, South Africa, Sweden, Belgium, France and Chile are calling for forest certification bodies to include gene-edited trees and transgenic trees in the mix.

“Forests face mounting stressed posed by invasive pests and climate change. Given the growing need for sustainable and renewable forest products and the increasing precision and safety record of biotechnologies, we believe that gene-edited trees can make a substantial contribution to management of certified forests,” the authors write. “To face the challenges of forest health, carbon sequestration and maintenance of other ecological services, we must use all available tools. Gene-edited tree research should be allowed immediately on certified land, and gene-edited trees proved by research to provide value should eventually be allowed in certified forests.”

The American chestnut is just one example of a tree that can become a viable part of forests thanks to the gene transfer process. Scott Merkle, associate dean for research at the Warnell School, and his team have several examples of trees that can overcome hardships and once again become viable thanks to the method.

“Incorporating transgenic trees into sustainably managed forests can have a significant impact on our overall tree health and forest productivity,” said Merkle. “Gene-edited trees can be better equipped to withstand temperature shifts or drought conditions. Lifting the ban also opens doors for new research to keep tree species from being lost forever.”

The letter from the scientists follows a petition hosted by the Alliance for Science that asked sustainable forest management systems—in particular, the Forest Stewardship Council and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification—to examine their opposition to trees created by gene transfer or gene editing and “bring them in line with current scientific evidence.”

The ban includes methods such as CRISPR, the most advanced and precise system for improving the beneficial traits of an organism, which was adapted from a naturally occurring genome-editing system in bacteria. The method is used in research on a variety of human and animal diseases.

But, the alliance of scientists points out, the ban runs counter to other technologies, such as hybridization, grafting and propagation, that have long been accepted as safe tools for improving forest health and productivity.

“Government-approved trials have a safety record beyond anything expected for other kinds of forestry genetics research,” said Steve Strauss, a forest scientist at Oregon State University and one of the signers of the new letter. “New technology always demands continued improvement and oversight, so rather than forbid rDNA research in certified forests, these management systems should be encouraging the development and careful evaluation of rDNA options.”


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