Success with 'cisgenics' in forestry offers new tools for biotechnology

Jun 08, 2010
Six weeks after being transplanted, genetically modified trees developed through the science of "cisgenics," at left, are growing substantially taller than a control group, at right. This research program at Oregon State University is moving genes from very similar or identical plant species, as an alternative to the more traditional "transgenic" approach to genetic modification. (Photo courtesy of Oregon State University)

Forestry scientists at Oregon State University have demonstrated for the first time that the growth rate and other characteristics of trees can be changed through "cisgenics" - a type of genetic engineering that is conceptually similar to traditional plant breeding.

Cisgenics uses genes from closely related species that usually are sexually compatible. If governments choose to regulate it similarly to conventional breeding, experts say, it could herald a new future for biotechnology, not only in forestry but crop agriculture and other areas.

In findings just published in Plant Biotechnology Journal, researchers used cisgenic manipulation to affect the actions of gibberellic acid, a , in . This had significant effects on the growth rate, morphology and wood properties of seedling trees.

The advance is important for forestry research, but perhaps even more significant in demonstrating the general value and success of cisgenics.

"Until now, most applications of biotechnology have been done with transgenics, in which you take from one plant or animal and transfer them into an unrelated species," said Steven Strauss, a distinguished professor of forest biotechnology at OSU. "By contrast, cisgenics uses whole genes from the same plant or a very closely related species. We may be able to improve on the slow and uncertain process of plant breeding with greater speed and certainty of effect."

This is possible in part because of the growing knowledge about what specific genes do in plants and animals, and enormous increases in the speed of genome sequencing, or mapping them out in their entirety. Sequencing that used to take years can now be accomplished in days.

Modern plant breeding, in which related are systematically interbred to create improved traits - such as faster growth, more desirable qualities, drought or disease resistance - dates back at least to the late 1800s. It's the basis of all varieties of plants that form the backbone of world agriculture. And the same basic mechanism is at work with cisgenics, except it's done with a much higher degree of genetic understanding, using genome and biotechnology techniques of which Charles Darwin and early plant breeders never would have dreamed.

Strauss believes that the more natural process and greater specificity of cisgenic biotechnology may help transcend some of the costly, time-consuming and cumbersome regulatory hurdles that have held back this science in forestry, agriculture and other fields.

"With cisgenics, you know exactly what gene you're picking, what you're putting in, and it's a process that is similar to what happens naturally during crop breeding and evolution," Strauss said. "Our genetic tools just make the process more precise, and we do it faster. We believe that this will help address some people's concerns, and that regulatory agencies may soon view this quite differently than the type of genetic modification done with conventional transgenics.

"We're not trying to insert genes from a fish into a strawberry here," Strauss said. "We're taking a gene from a poplar tree and putting it back into a poplar tree. That's easier for a lot of people to accept, and scientifically we believe such approaches should be exempt from the regulatory reviews required for most transgenic crops. "

Genetic analysis of natural variation in plant traits provide important clues for cisgenic approaches, Strauss said. In any group of plants, some might grow taller or better resist disease than others. So once researchers know what genes are controlling growth and disease resistance, they can take them from one plant and put them back into the same or closely related species, and amplify or attenuate the desired characteristic.

"That is conceptually the same thing we've been doing in conventional for two centuries," said Strauss, a world leader in the application of to forestry.

This research has been supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, and the Tree Biosafety and Genomics Research Cooperative based at OSU.

In the new study with poplar trees, the researchers were able to use cisgenic technology to change the growth rate of the trees - some grew faster and others slower, in a greenhouse setting. Both smaller and taller trees can be useful for different kinds of applications. There can actually be a wide range of variation possible with this approach, allowing scientists to create different characteristics and simply select the ones that have value after multiple gene insertions and field tests.

Desirable characteristics might relate to growth rate, height, drought or disease resistance, flowering time, seed production or other traits. A gene that gives plants more heat tolerance might be useful in helping plants to deal with a warming climate. Some ornamental trees might be developed for shorter height to use in compact urban areas.

Applications in bioenergy, such as for faster growth or modified biomass for processing into ethanol, are also possible. And tree pests and diseases are proliferating at an alarming rate, due to exotic pests and climate variation. The ability to insert resistance genes from related species could provide new tools to deal with some of these problems, and do it much faster than is possible with conventional tree breeding, which often takes many years.

The much heralded "green revolution," in fact, took decades, but produced such accomplishments as wheat plants with shorter stems that were sturdier and spent more of the plant's energy on seed production instead of stem growth.

In this study, Strauss showed that it is feasible to create similar changes with native cisgenes in one year.

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2 / 5 (1) Jun 08, 2010
The tehnology is the same as in the gm, but now as it is from close related species they wont be tested as hard as gm organism......
Now this is wrong the regulation must be product-based not process-based like in Canada. I cant understand why scientist and the government listen to the crowd...and why the people dont trust the science when it comes to gm, in other parts of science when a medicine or food preservatives are intrdused they keep their mouth shut....
not rated yet Jun 08, 2010
There are always tradeoffs. Faster growth will imply something implicitly, whether it be soil degredation, lowered immunity of trees, lower tencil strength or something.... Trees themselves have already optimize these trade offs as much as possibly over billions of years.

it is highly unlikely humans can do any better than evolution over billions of years or, if you'd like, god.
not rated yet Jun 08, 2010
The fast growth meens les strength this is true, but it depends of what do you need the wood for, when it comes to desease resistants, then you can take the resistance of one species and to imply it to other which hasnt developed such resistance yet...
and there are lots of implication otherwise they wont invest that much money for nothing
not rated yet Jun 08, 2010
There are thousands of examples where desirable traits can be combined from multiple parents. Direct transfer of disease resistance from a sport to a commercial variety of wheat is only one example.

Poplars are commonly used for wood pulp and strength is of no concern. In fact, lignin which provides much of wood's strength is a major problem in creating pulp. Less lignin, fewer chemicals required to breakdown the wood.
4 / 5 (1) Jun 08, 2010
The patenting of plants is destroying the Plant Variety Protection Act which was intended create new plants using traditional breeding. Traditional breeding is mostly dead because it does not have the same level of patent protection as transgenic plant "breeding". Patent law should be changed. The universities are in bed with the biotech corporations
at the expense of traditional breeding programs worldwide. Its a racket caused by flawed patent law which will be challenged.
not rated yet Jun 09, 2010
each fermer in the world use the traditional breeding tehniqes, if it was that easy to combine the desirable traits then why it takes decades(and when it comes to trees well they dont give seed the furst year it is much later ), you can estimate this actually it is pure mathematic , if you know the number of the chromosomes, and if you have to traits in one hromosome it gets really hard to separate this traits(if you want the furst but dont want the other). And why not this people to take money for their job(to create something like this you need time tehnology etc. ), we are not in the comunism, nothing is free, people planting normal crops buy their seegs too, there are lots of hibrids on the market that dont get any potent seeds and people are buing every year.
not rated yet Jun 09, 2010
How comes this tehnology shrinks the variety, they create more(but that is not good too I suppose everytning must be how it was-funny critisists you are) the old are wild species they are not going anywhere!!!
not rated yet Jun 10, 2010
Well, for once I don't really find much of anything specifically alarming or offensive about this approach to genetic engineering.

I mean, suppose you modify corn to produce twice as many ears per plant by simply introducing redundant copies of relevant genes. Would only seem to increase productivity, but even still I would expect strict, prolonged inspections and trial periods, starting with livestock, before this type of food (or creatures feeding on it,) should be allowed into the public food supply.

Something that might be of use also, tomatoes with larger leaves so the sun doesn't scorch the produce, as number or size of tomatoes isn't the problem, but rather dying, rotting, worms, or baking on the vine in the Louisiana heat are the real problems with tomatoes. They get so hot they can actually cook right on the vine, but if they are covered by leaves, then they don't cook like that as often.

Anyway, this just seems a lot more reasonable than the "Transgenics".
not rated yet Jun 15, 2010
There is one obvious problem that was briefly mentioned in an article somewhere else on genetically modified Eucalyptus trees. That is the resource usage. In that article the concern was about land erosion and water usage due to enhanced GM features in the tree but it goes much further than that. If you create something that produces more grain for instance then it requires more material to make that extra grain. With the wheat it was a trade off between stem length and grain size. Its the same for any crop grown regardless of its end purpose. Material in = material out + waste material (if any).
In other words you cannot create something from nothing and as has been said here earlier nature has spent billions of years perfecting plants and tree's to grow to their optimum capability and capacity given the environmental limitations around them. Humans cannot do it any better unless they believe they are gods and then they are seriously deluding themselves and everyone else around them.
not rated yet Jun 15, 2010
@ Kev C
I dont agree exactly, the fast growing is on the prise of the strength , see here the thing isnt exactly to produse more of something, but what is the quality of this something, how dence the wood material is, for the purpose of paper this is beneficial, less lignin(somebody has mentioned this I thing).And more productivity means less lend used for planting, if you use a field for this purpose soon or later you should return the compounds that the tree has taken from the soil but what is the difference if this will happen for 1 year of for 3 years, and if the tehnology get more agvanced you can include the genes responcible for N2 ficsation from the air(beans plants do that) that some plants have this is really beneficial for the soil...and if to guide the evolution of the plants in order to fit humans needs then we are playing god from 10k years allready....