Genetic engineering is coming to the forests.
While the practice of splicing foreign DNA into food crops has become common in corn and soy, few companies or researchers have dared to apply genetic engineering to plants that provide an essential strut of the U.S. economy, trees.
But that will soon change. Two industry giants, International Paper Co. and MeadWestvaco Corp., are planning to transform plantation forests of the southeastern United States by replacing native pine with genetically engineered eucalyptus, a rapidly growing Australian tree that in its conventional strains now dominates the tropical timber industry.
The companies' push into genetically modified trees, led by their joint biotech venture, ArborGen LLC, looks to overcome several hurdles for the first time. Most prominently, they are banking on a controversial gene splice that restricts trees' ability to reproduce, meant to allay fears of bioengineered eucalyptus turning invasive and overtaking native forests.
If such a fertility control technology -- which has come under fire in farming for fear seed firms will exploit it -- is proven effective, it could open the door to many varieties of wild plants, including weedy grasses, to be genetically engineered for use in energy applications like biomass and next-generation biofuels without fear of invasiveness.
The use of such perennial plants -- so named because, unlike annual farm crops, they live and grow for many years -- has long interested business and government, including the Energy Department, which has collaborated with ArborGen. The plants, which include many grasses targeted for cellulosic ethanol, can be harvested when needed and, given their hardiness, grow on marginal land.