Forests and ecosystems around the globe are struggling due to many factors, the most volatile of which are pests and a rapidly changing climate. With the loss of forests comes the loss of a large source of industry, employment, and energy production. GREAT TREES, a research consortium based out of Oregon State University, is looking to provide assistance to the global forest industry to help forests survive and thrive.
The GREAT in GREAT TREES stands for Genetic Research on Engineering and Advanced Transformation of Trees.
“Meaning, how can we learn to efficiently modify (edit, like CRISPR) or insert genes in the important but often very biologically difficult trees [that are] important to the global forest industry,” Steve Strauss, Distinguished Professor of Forest Biotechnology at OSU wrote in an email interview with The Advocate.
While the science is pretty advanced and complicated, it comes down to “creating ways to make it faster and less costly to genetically modify trees, whether that be with CRISPR for gene editing or to make a traditional GMO by gene transfer,” added Strauss.
GREAT TREES originally began in July of 2018, but it was actually a continuation (with changes) of a similar consortium that has been in operation for over 26 years, according to Strauss, who founded GREAT TREES as Co-op Leader and Principal Investigator. The lab facilities, legal and financial services, among other things are supported largely by Oregon State University.
The purpose behind the consortium according to Strauss is to make the process of genetic modification something they can use easily.
“Companies would like to make gene editing or transfer a routine tool that does not require a costly lab, or methods that must be newly fit to every genotype and species,” Strauss wrote, “as they use dozens to hundreds in their forestry programs.” This is important, he went on to say, because climate change and pests are making the need for rapid breeding with all methods into a priority. “Right now, genetic modification itself is the major technical bottleneck to wider use of this kind of technology.”
The consortium is made up mostly of major forestry companies from around the world that use trees like eucalyptus for pulp and energy sourcing.
Strauss wrote, “There, they routinely use the most advanced genetic methods like hybridization and vegetative propagation of the best genotypes, much like we do for apples and grapes, so the industry is ready to take the next technological step once the science develops.” You can see the full list of companies involved on the consortium’s website.
He also noted that while countries like Brazil, Chile, South Africa, and Sweden contract with OSU for the expertise they can find here, Oregon’s forest industry isn’t involved.
“Here in Oregon, most of our forest industry is not ready, does not need it, or is not allowed to use it by so-called green certification systems, so they are not taking that next step,” Strauss said.
GREAT TREES Research
“Our work is to try and create major advances in how we put genes into tree cells to modify or insert new functions,” Strauss wrote. “And then regenerate those cells into healthy trees with desired properties like pest resistance, better wood for specific purposes, improved social acceptability (e.g., trees with improvements for industrial uses but that won’t spread into wild populations).”
By modifying the genes in the trees, forests are able to become more resilient against threats like climate change and pests. The research benefits companies globally whose forests and resources are at risk.
“All the companies we work with are facing immense challenges in keeping their forests productive and healthy given new pests and rapid climate change,” Strauss said. “They are looking to all the technologies that can help them, and genetic modification is a big option.”
The companies invest in GREAT TREES because genetic modification is extremely expensive, so they share costs with other companies by becoming part of the consortium.
Companies are also fighting a battle against preconceived notions of genetic modification, Strauss said.
“The main problem is it’s really hard and costly to do the genetic modification (which is why they invest in GREAT TREES), and because the public nearly everywhere has been ‘educated’ to fear modern genetic modification across the board (a result of the GMO controversies in agriculture/food),” Strauss explained, “so regulations and market restrictions are really tough—in many cases they are impossible obstacles for even the largest companies to deal with as they 100% exclude any research with genetically modified trees in their forests or products.”
One of the big problems comes from prohibitions on use of genetic editing technology in certified forests or products.
Strauss wrote, “A major political challenge is our current “green” certification system, that literally bans ANY use of such technology in a certified forest or product. This makes no scientific sense, though the certifiers will often make it sound as though it does.”
He added, “We have enough experience to know the technology is safe, it’s just a matter of what is used for and the benefits vs. risks compared to conventional breeding methods.”
“Part of what we do in GREAT TREES, though by no means our main work,” Strauss said, “is to try and influence policy and regulations about genetic modification of trees and crops to make them much more science based and research friendly.”
As previously stated, it’s been difficult or impossible for these techniques to assist the growth of Oregon’s own forests, an incredible resource that provides industry, jobs and products to thousands of Oregonians.
“I think most of the public would be shocked at the preclusions or restrictions to even research, and at what the ‘green certification’ of their wood and paper products really means. We assume its green and good, but in fact there is a lot of ideology and commercial interest that motivates it, often against larger environmental goals,” Strauss said.
For more information about GREAT TREES, you can visit the consortium’s OSU Website.
By Kyra Young