Scientists Genetically Engineer Trees for Environmental Mitigation

The fledgling practice of genetically engineering trees for specific traits or purposes is starting to catch on, but despite the potential for mitigation of some environmental problems, enviros remain wary. Richard Meagher at the University of Georgia engineers trees that absorb mercury from the soil. Steven Strauss at Oregon State University designs fast-growing trees with low lignin content — attractive alternatives for the paper and wood-pulp industries. He’s also trying to make trees that will sequester carbon in their roots. All the researchers involved stress the need to design tress that will not breed or accidentally spread, but enviros aren’t buying it. They worry, as with GM foods, about unintended consequences. For his part, the University of Colorado’s Yan Linhart recommends “biological caution and common sense,” but says, “One has to not make sweeping judgments that say this particular type of activity is all good or all bad.”