By altering genes, scientists create quick-growing fruit and pulp trees; but critics see 'Frankenforests.'
After one of his famous walks, the bearded naturalist John Muir wrote in 1896, "Few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine trees."
But if today's trees could tell their stories, some American branches would be whispering new tales of origin: epics of genetic engineering in 150 groves from Puget Sound to the palmetto flats of South Carolina. Scientists are increasingly tweaking the genetics of trees in the laboratory to enable them to do such things as live at higher altitudes, produce more fruit, convert more easily into pulp for paper products, and grow faster for timber harvesting.
Moreover, advocates point to ways the new population could help the old. In some cases, harvest of the newfangled trees would save older ones from being cut down. And had the technology been available when the American chestnut blight broke out in the early 1900s, say some, it might have saved the US chestnut tree from near extinction.
To critics, however, these newest members of the sylvan society are Frankentrees - potentially toxic mutants and harbingers of an age when Muir's "lordly monarchs" might be superseded by megatrees from the lab. And as China and Brazil experiment with genetically engineered pine cones and apple blossoms, the debate in America is spreading beyond the laboratory, the Ivory Tower, and the confines of experimental groves.
"We're looking at a very dramatic impact on the ground here in the US, and especially the South," says Alyx Perry, director of the Southern Forests Network in Asheville, N.C. "There are inevitable risks that can irreversibly alter native systems."
Commercial use of "transgenic" crops began here in the South when the first genetically engineered tobacco plant was planted in 1986, barely a decade after American scientists figured out how to cut and paste DNA segments to create everything from spider silk to glow-in-the-dark guppies.