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Genetically Modified Trees Designed to Propagate Within Designated Area

New study reported that poplar trees can be genetically-modified to restrict their growth in specific farms

Genetically-Modified Organism (GMO) have gained significant traction in recent past due to various advantages in terms of raising agricultural productivity and reducing the need for pesticides. Researchers at Oregon State University conducted a multi-year study using GMO poplar trees and found that engineering them to be sexually sterile is an effective containment measure. The research was published in the journal Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology in August 2018.

As a part of the study, researchers engineered poplar trees, which are useful for producing wood and paper products, owing to their fast growth. However, these trees can potentially be invasive if they spread beyond farms. Poplars reproduce sexually with female flowers producing seeds and male flowers producing pollen to fertilize them. Furthermore, the scientists altered 13 genes to prevent them from flowering or make them grow sterile flowers.

In field tests, the Oregon State team studied 3,300 poplar trees in a 9-acre plot of land, over seven growing seasons. Year after year, the trees reliably failed to reproduce, making it easy to keep them contained. Importantly no other traits were affected, meaning the plants were still just as useful and stable as any other.

The study was conducted only on female poplars, but the researchers say that the genes targeted are found in both sexes, and should have the same effect in males. The team also points out that poplars can spread through other methods, such as root sprouts, but these are far slower and easier to contain manually.

“People have this fear that GMO trees will take over the world, but these are containment genes that make taking over the world essentially impossible,” says Steve Strauss, corresponding author of the study. “If something is GMO, people assume it’s dangerous – it’s guilty until proven safe in the minds of many and in our regulations today. In contrast, scientists say the focus should be on the trait and its value and safety, not the method used.”