- FREDERICTON - The forests of the new millennium will include stands of high-tech
muscle trees that grow bigger and faster and can even stomp their own bugs.
- The Canadian Forest Service is conducting
controlled greenhouse tests on white spruce trees that have been genetically
altered to fend off attacks by the budworm, the scourge of eastern Canada's
- The forest service is taking its cue
from the agriculture sector which is already well into the brave new world
of transgenic crops, including bug-resistant spuds.
- Researchers say that applying the science
of genetics to tree production could result in a whole new era of specialty
forests: plantations of elite trees that won't require expensive pesticide
- "We can gain a lot by having plantations
of trees that are resistant to infestation," says Armand Seguin, a
research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service in Sainte-Foy, Que.
- "We will probably reduce substantially
the amount of losses each year by forest pests. By doing that, we can leave
alone and quiet some of our natural forest and we can also put the specialty
plantations near the pulp and paper companies. It's really more of an alternative."
- More than 25 years ago, the Canadian
Forest Service pioneered the use of a naturally ocurring bacterium, Bacillus
thuringiensis (Bt), in battling the budworm. The insect feeds on the needles
of spruce and fir trees, killing the trees.
- Now, researchers like Seguin have figured
out how to extract the bug-killing Bt gene and inject it directly into
spruce trees so the conifers can produce the toxin.
- Seguin said the work is just beginning
and will likely take at least 10 years to perfect. But he said initial
signs are very promising.
- "We will eventually engineer the
tree so that the toxin will be produced only when the tree is wounded and
under attack by insects," Seguin said.
- "We're working on finding a wound-inducible
promoter that will turn on the Bt gene and associated genes only when trees
face infestation. There will be no toxin released when there's no infestation,
so there will be no effect on non-targeted organisms."
- The research has prompted interest from
such forestry giants as J.D. Irving Ltd. in New Brunswick, a province which
has been severely affected in the past by budworm infestations.
- As well, Seguin says other countries
are hard at work developing genetically altered, insect-proof trees.
- But the idea of molecular manipulation
of the environment gives some people the shivers.
- There are concerns that scientists are
rushing too fast into unchartered territory.
- "We need to take careful look at
whether this is something we should be getting into," says Roberta
Clowater of the New Brunswick Conservation Council, an environmental lobby
- "What are the risks? If they put
them in a plantation, are they sure there won't be a negative effect on
the natural forest or on organisms in the soil? Everything is so interrelated.
We'll never understand all the connections out there in the natural world."
- Seguin says scientists are keenly aware
of public concerns about these new, altered trees and plants.
- He says the manipulation of trees can
include making them sterile so they won't disrupt the natural order.
- He believes environmental benefits outweigh
any potential problems. There would be less spraying against bugs, he says,
and more of the forest would be left untouched.
- "Some people say we're playing God
because we mix DNA from bacteria to a tree and stuff like that, but I think
since we have the technology, I don't see why it will be harmful,"
- "It's only a very small piece of
DNA in a very large genome."