For the First Time, Genetically Modified Trees Have Been Planted in a U.S. Forest: NY Times

This article was a total blast from the past for me.. I organized a joint meeting with SAF, ESA, and Pew Agbiotech on forest tree biotech lo these twenty years ago.

Most forest products companies have not been interested in carrying these kinds of investments (for one thing conifers are harder to grow from culture) with unknown risks over sawtimber rotations.

Nevertheless,  it could be that carbon markets upend these traditional economies.  Conceivably every year these trees soak up more carbon than your average poplar (or whatever the carbon is measured against), it could be making some money.  Even if they ultimately die.. early, or get sick, or eaten by bugs, or various other predators, and start producing less than the average pop.  (that’s why I can’t really get my head around many tree carbon market programs). Or maybe not? Note the caption to the photo says “the company has started marketing credits” based on things that haven’t happened yet and could be reversed.

But the landowner in this story is planting a mix of species, so his risk is minimal..his idea is simply to get the hybrid poplars to the same size faster. If that doesn’t work, the other trees  will just soak up the carbon.  Also, mixing species are handy from the unknown future angle, as forest economists have long understood vis a vis markets and pests,  but is also true for unknown climate change.

They’re also being planted alongside native trees like sweet gum, tulip trees and bald cypress, to avoid genetically identical stands of trees known as monocultures; non-engineered poplars are being planted as experimental controls. Ms. Hall and Mr. Mellor describe their plantings as both pilot projects and research trials. Company scientists will monitor tree growth and survival.

Understatement of the week for reforestation practitioners:

“They have some encouraging results,” said Donald Ort, a University of Illinois geneticist whose plant experiments helped inspire Living Carbon’s technology. But he added that the notion that greenhouse results will translate to success in the real world is “not a slam dunk.”

This one gave me a chuckle.  I seem to recall a research proposal mentioned low lignin loblolly pine for easier (and less chemical-using) pulping.  The old “floppy tree” proposal.

The problem with these approaches has been that researchers want to do something (like get $ for sequencing, or make money in carbon markets).  So they dream up ideas and hype them. So environmental groups listen, and think that the hype will really happen (plantations of floppy trees or GE hybrid poplars everywhere!)  and get worried, hyping the hype. Meanwhile, the rest of us just yawn and carry on.

That same year, Ms. Hall, who had been working for Silicon Valley ventures like OpenAI (which was responsible for the language model ChatGPT), met her future co-founder Patrick Mellor at a climate tech conference. Mr. Mellor was researching whether trees could be engineered to produce decay-resistant wood.

From floppy trees to decay-resistant wood in only 30 years!

In a field accustomed to glacial progress and heavy regulation, Living Carbon has moved fast and freely. The gene gun-modified poplars avoided a set of federal regulations of genetically modified organisms that can stall biotech projects for years. (Those regulations have since been revised.) By contrast, a team of scientists who genetically engineered a blight-resistant chestnut tree using the same bacterium method employed earlier by Living Carbon have been awaiting a decision since 2020..

“You could say the old rule was sort of leaky,” said Bill Doley, a consultant who helped manage the Agriculture Department’s genetically modified organism regulation process until 2022.

Why would gene-gunning (without Agrobacterium genes involved) be OK? Well, the source of APHIS’s regulatory authority was that Agrobacterium is a plant pest, and thereby subject to the Plant Protection Act.  No Agro, no authority.  Gene gunning = no authority.  As in this sorghum letter I found online:

Because domesticated sorghum is not a plant pest or listed as a federal noxious weed, the genetic elements used to generate TRSBG101B Transgenic Sorghum are all sourced from fully classified organisms, and the transformation process does not introduce any plant pest DNA components, there is no scientifically valid basis for concluding that TRSBGlOlB Transgenic Sorghum is, or will become, a plant pest within the meaning of the Plant Protection Act (PPA).
Ceres therefore asserts that under current regulations, TRSBG101B Transgenic Sorghum is not a regulated article within the meaning of 7 CFR §340.1 because it does not satisfy any of the regulatory criteria that would subject it to the oversight of the USDA’s Animal Plant Health and Inspection Service (APHIS).

There are so many different ways of working with DNAs and RNAs today that the regulatory system must be almost unimaginably complex.  It must be difficult to keep up with the technologies.

And from fellow forest geneticists:

Forest geneticists were less sanguine about Living Carbon’s trees. Researchers typically assess trees in confined field trials before moving to large-scale plantings, said Andrew Newhouse, who directs the engineered chestnut project at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. “Their claims seem bold based on very limited real-world data,” he said.

Steve Strauss, a geneticist at Oregon State University, agreed with the need to see field data. “My experience over the years is that the greenhouse means almost nothing” about the outdoor prospects of trees whose physiology has been modified, he said. “Venture capitalists may not know that.”

Dr. Ort of the University of Illinois dismissed such environmental concerns. But he said investors were taking a big chance on a tree that might not meet its creators’ expectations.

“It’s not unexciting,” he said. “I just think it’s uber high risk.”

8 thoughts on “For the First Time, Genetically Modified Trees Have Been Planted in a U.S. Forest: NY Times”

  1. Back in 2009 I visited GreenWood Resources’ 29,000-acre hybrid poplar tree farm along the Columbia River east of Portland. One of the foresters told me that he’s had trees grow to 16 feet tall in their first year. At 14 years old, some of the trees reached 18 inches dbh or larger and well over 100 feet tall. The trees were not genetically modified, but were hybrids of black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa), eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides), and a European species, black poplar (Populus nigra). Greenwood eventually liquidated the plantation and sold to an ag interest — I think the property is growing cattle, not trees.

    • Steve, I remember a field trip to a poplar tree farm as part of an SAF Convention in Portland.. I mostly remember fast growing poplar and lots of tasty blackberries. If I recall correctly (big if) the idea was that some paper plant needed more hardwood pulp in the mix and that was the market?

      Based on my half century of experience, short rotation woody crops are always being proposed (remember Florida euc plantations?) and studied, and experimented with, but have never hit the big time, based on economics and alternative uses for the land. I could be wrong. Any examples out there?

      • The Greenwood plantation I mentioned was near Boardman, ~170 miles east of Portland. It supplied a mill that was making lumber — moulding, mostly, and also was shipping logs to Asia via containers. A bio-chemical plant in Boardman had big plans to make biobutanol, etc., but never really produced much, as I recall.

  2. Clones are clones. Zero genetic diversity. Hence, one pathogen wipes out a population of genetically identical clones. Watched it happen with fast growth West Coast poplars planted for pulp source on irrigated or subirrigated farm land behind tidal gates and cheap BPA power ran de watering pumps in what was once critical
    Habitat for juvenile Chinook swimming to the ocean in the Columbia River. Factually, the pulp mills reserved right of purchase at no stated price and often were out of business when no more non merch softwood was available after the Clinton NW Forest Plan essentially ended federal timber supply. 1993. Just another pulp mill grift. Like when they measured water content to measure bone dry ton units. Plot a year of chip samples and you saw a half bell curve with no limit on wet weight for more water and no chips sample drier than 59% water content. They were the big dog with limitless litigation budgets. So small mills adjusted. Sold chips to highest orice at the chip bin at the mill. Pulp mills paid the trucking. Usually to the closet mill because pulp mills traded chips to control chip inventories at operations.

    Business adapts or dies.

    • John, thanks for bringing up the diversity angle. But I’m not sure those poplars were all one clone. But maybe we’re not thinking about the same hybrid poplar plantations.
      I’m thinking of plantations we saw on an SAF Convention field trip. As I recall it was somewhere in southern WA. The idea was to grow pulp to mix with softwood as I recall. Like I said, I think they were hybrid poplars but not one clone.

      But on to this case, there is a tendency to have less genetic diversity both with hybrid poplars and with GE ones due to the nature of “not having many GE ones to start with”. Here’s the plan for diversifying transgenic American Chestnut starting with 1-4 genetic founders and outcrossing to wild trees. According to the article, a diversified population of transgenic Am chestnut is “estimated to be available 20-35 years after years after federal approval.”
      2019 paper by Westbrook et al.

  3. Decades ago, ponderosa pine seeds were collected across the west to use in reforestation, after harvest. Little did they know, that seeds collected in South Dakota and Montana wouldn’t grow well in California. I’ve seen plantations planted with such ‘offsite’ stock. I also suspect that they ignore elevations and aspects, too, at that time. I’ve had to mark timber in these goofy plantations, trying to identify the individuals that adapted the best, as leave trees.

    So, this brings me to possible hybrids, gaining a ‘foothold’ in western forests. I rather doubt there is any ‘danger’, but is there any kind of ‘diversity effect’ of sharing genetic characteristics over the longterm? It seems to be a similar situation to GMO trees.

    • Larry, this raises several interesting questions..
      1. Has anyone reexamined the plantations at Placerville made famous in Conkle’s elevation transect study? How are they doing now? This wasn’t really offsite in terms of spatial distances, but showed adaptation to elevation, which evidenced itself over time.

      2. The bottom line for the offsite trees is …. do they grow and compete well enough to beat out natives? So one thing about (some) really offsite trees is that they produce stress crops of cones. Do those seeds establish themselves? So how I (and other geneticists?) would think about that is that natural selection will take care of them ultimately.

      Now some people would want to identify those plantations and cut them down and start over. I can’t disagree with that approach but if trees are around the wildlife is not going to check their genetic ID cards, so there’s that. It’s a trade-off, would cost some $ and seed might not be available, versus letting them grow and generating more diversity.

      3. This is a pretty interesting fairly recent (2014) article about ponderosa pine
      “The results from this study underscore the degree of evolutionary divergence between the two varieties. From a management and conservation perspective, the two varieties therefore should be treated differently in planning and site-based prescriptions when they co-occur within an
      administrative region.” the two varieties being Rocky Mountain and Coastal or varieties scopulorum and ponderosa. They have nice maps in the paper on page 18.


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