New Millennium Forests
No Place For Bugs
By Chris Morris
Canadian Press
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 evergreen forests.
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 spraying.
"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 group.
"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," he says.
"It's only a very small piece of DNA in a very large genome."