Genetically engineered forests?

Scientists are exploring whether genetically engineered or gene-edited trees – also known as biotech trees – can counter the threats facing our forests, such as higher temperatures, droughts and pests. But this raises both scientific and ethical concerns.

According to a 2012 assessment by the U.S. Forest Service, nearly 7 per cent of forests in the U.S. are in danger of losing a quarter of their tree vegetation by 2027. This estimate is 40 per higher than the previous estimate made in 2006.

Climate change is just the tip of the iceberg, Jason A. Delborne, a professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at North Caroline State University, argues in an article published in The Conversation. Higher temperatures, droughts, pests and fungal pathogens are decimating forests across the U.S. and Canada.

To counter this growing threats, a committee was formed in 2018 to examine the potential use of biotechnology to protect our forests. More specifically, the committee was tasked with identifying “the ecological, ethical and social implications of deploying biotechnology in forests” and developing “a research agenda to address any knowledge gaps”.

The committee focused in particular on biotech trees that could resist pests and pathogens by inserting genes that could help a tree tolerate or fight an insect or fungus.

Not surprisingly, this is not a straightforward issue. As Delborne explains, trees are large and long-lived, which means that it will take decades to test the durability and stability of an introduced trait. Trees also have a very complex and enormous genome. What’s more, tree populations have already developed many important adaptations to various threats through their evolutionary processes, so losing those could be “disastrous”.

“What would reduce wilderness more – the introduction of a biotech tree or the eradication of an important species?”, asks Delborne. In his opinion, there are no right or wrong answers here, but they do highlight the complexity of using technology to enhance “nature”.

Image credit: Tim Gorman via Flickr

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