Genetically Engineered Trees


The committee held a webinar on Friday, March 27, 2015 at 11am – 1pm EDT to gather information from invited speakers.

Click here to view the full webinar.

What are genetically engineered trees?

Trees have been transformed using genetic engineering to introduce novel traits such as disease resistance and increased biomass. Genetic engineering is used instead of or in addition to conventional plant breeding because it can speed the breeding process, which is time-consuming in long-lived species like trees. Genetic engineering can be used to incorporate traits that may be difficult to introduce through conventional plant-breeding techniques or that may not exist in the genetic variation of the species of interest.

Why did the committee hear about genetically engineered trees?

Only a few tree species with GE traits are currently available. However, researchers are incorporating GE traits into many tree species, and these trees may be available in the near future. The committee wanted to hear about these developments.

The following slideshow provides a brief introduction to the topic.

Watch the Genetically Engineered Trees Webinar and hear what the speakers presented to the committee!

The speakers’ presentations addressed the state of the science regarding GE traits in development for tree species and governance issues related to the commercialization of GE trees.

Steve Strauss, Professor, Oregon State University (00:10:25 mark), discussed the economic and environmental benefits that genetic engineering could bring to tree species and the current state of the U.S. regulatory system with regards to trees. View bio.

Steve Strauss is a distinguished professor of forest biotechnology in the Department of Forest Science at Oregon State University (OSU). He also has joint appointments in the Genetics and the Molecular and Cellular Biology Programs. He is the director of the Tree Biosafety and Genomics Research Cooperative at OSU, a university-public agency-industry consortium conducting research and education on the biosafety and physiology of genetically engineered trees used in plantation forestry and horticulture. Dr. Strauss directs the OSU Program for Outreach in Resource Biotechnology, aimed at promoting public understanding and facilitating science-based public debates in food and natural resources biotechnology. He was a 2005 Leopold Leadership Fellow, part of a program aimed at training environmental scientists to be more effective at influencing public policy and presenting science to news media. Dr. Strauss has earned a bachelor of science degree in ecology from Cornell University, a master of science degree in forest science from Yale University, and a doctorate degree in genetics from the University of California at Berkeley. He has published more than 160 scientific papers, given more than 170 invited lectures on biotechnology and genetics of trees, and obtained 16 million dollars of competitive grant support. He has also advised governments and written in scientific journals about national and international regulations on field research and commercial development of genetically engineered crops and trees. Dr. Strauss’ current research focuses on genetic engineering of flowering, stature, and transformation-based “functional genomics” using poplar trees as model organisms.

Les Pearson, Director of Regulatory Affairs, ArborGen (00:52:05 mark) discussed the use of genetic engineering in ArborGen’s development of tree varieties and the advantages that genetic engineering may offer to challenges such as invasive insects and diseases that threaten forests and commercially produced trees. View bio.

Les Pearson began with ArborGen in 2003 as Director of Regulatory Affairs responsible for the regulatory oversight of and commercial approvals for biotechnology tree seedlings. In January 2013 he took on additional responsibilities of managing the biotechnology science R&D program. Prior to joining ArborGen, Dr. Pearson served in a number of positions at Westvaco Corporation from 1989 to 2003, including most recently as the leader of Westvaco’s Forest Biotechnology Group, where he was responsible for managing research teams in growth genes, flowering control, and stress resistance as well as the regulatory oversight of Westvaco’s biotechnology tree research and development. He started his career at the University of Georgia, where he worked as a post-doctoral associate in plant gene expression research. Dr. Pearson received his Ph.D. in plant molecular biology from the John Innes Institute at the University of East Anglia where he did breakthrough research on the control of gene expression in transgenic plant cells. He also has a B.S. in biochemistry from the University of East Anglia in England where he graduated magna cum laude.

Bill Powell, Professor, State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry (01:20:40 mark) discussed his research to genetically engineer an American chestnut resistant to a fungal blight that killed the extensive chestnut forest in the eastern United States after it was introduced from Asia in the late 1800s. View bio.

William Powell received his B.S. in biology in 1982 at Salisbury University, Maryland, and his Ph.D. in 1986 at Utah State University studying the molecular mechanisms of hypovirulence in the chestnut blight fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica. He spent over two years as a postdoctoral associate at University of Florida researching transformation techniques using the fungal pathogen, Fusarium oxysporum. In 1989 he became a faculty member at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) at Syracuse, New York, where he began collaborating with his colleague, Dr. Charles Maynard, researching methods to develop a blight-resistant American chestnut (Castanea dentata) tree. He has also worked with American elm and hybrid poplar. In addition to being a professor at SUNY-ESF, Dr. Powell is the director of SUNY-ESF’s Council on Biotechnology in Forestry and the co-director of The American Chestnut Research and Restoration Program. Dr. Powell currently has over 50 peer-reviewed publications and one patent. He teaches courses in Principles of Genetics, Plant Biotechnology, and Biotechnology Freshman orientation. His most significant accomplishment is the enhancement of blight resistance in American chestnut by his research team and collaborators.

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