Researchers at the Oregon State University (OSU) have used genetic manipulations to create midget trees. In fact, they can control tree height. For example, 'natural' poplars can reach 150 feet or more. These forest scientists have created poplars growing only to a height of 6 inches after two years. They say that 'it opens the door to a wide variety of new products for the ornamental and nursery industries.' Of course, there are environmental concerns, but the researchers said that their dwarfed trees 'are unlikely to be any kind of threat to spread, because they would compete very poorly with normal or wild trees.' And they're already busy creating mini-versions of other trees. Are you ready to put a one-foot pine on your balcony?
Above is a picture of some of these genetically modified poplars (Credit: OSU). All trees were planted at the same time and are two years old, but as you can see, they are growing to very different heights, shapes and colors. Here is a link to a larger version of this photo.
Steven Strauss, a professor of forest science at OSU, said that "further development may be precluded by social, legal and regulatory obstacles. Clearly there would be concerns whether the market for specialty tree products such as this would be strong enough to make it worth the large investments of time, money and testing that current regulation of genetically modified organisms would require, at least in the U.S."
First, let's look at some results obtained by the research team. "In their studies, OSU scientists were able to create young poplar trees, which grow rapidly and can reach a mature height of 150 feet or more, that were anywhere from about 15 feet to a few inches tall after two years of growth. The smallest of them could be difficult to even find, tiny little “shrublets” among the flowers in the field site."
But how did they genetically modify the trees?
The manipulation of height growth was achieved by insertion of certain genes, mostly taken from the model plant Arabidopsis, which inhibited the action of a class of plant-specific hormones known as gibberellic acids. These compounds are also used as sprays to control the size and fruiting of orchard trees. In trees, the compounds promote the elongation of plant cells -- when they are inhibited, the cells do not fully elongate, and plants remain short and stocky.
So far, the researchers have used seven distinct kinds of genes and more than 160 different types of genetic insertions to create about 600 genetically modified trees." and besides being able to control tree height, they also saw great variations in foliage color and leaf shape.
But what about the introduction of GM trees in our environment? Is this dangerous? According to the forest scientists, "dwarfed trees such as this are unlikely to be any kind of threat to spread, because they would compete very poorly with normal or wild trees. In virtually all tree species, low height is a disadvantage as trees compete for sunshine."
For more information, this research work has been published in the Landscape Plant News journal, a quarterly paper edited by the Landscape Plant Development Center, based in Minnesota, but with a research station in Oregon. The title of the article was "Dwarfism genes for modifying the stature of woody plants: A case study in poplar" (Volume 18, Spring 2007, pages 3-6). Here is a link to the full issue (PDF format, 12 pages).
Sources: Oregon State University media release, via EurekAlert!, June 18, 2007; and various websites
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