"Do very old trees effectively oxidize over time, like humans do?" he said. "Or can they renew their cellular integrity continuously despite living for centuries to millennia? These are the kinds of questions we can start to ask and answer, in ways that we never could before."
Ultimately, the researchers believe that a more comprehensive understanding of tree genetics should allow controlled gene transfer, both as a research and biotechnology tool. It could take the type of conventional plant breeding that has been done with trees for centuries but control the process more scientifically, modifying the expression of specific natural or native genes for desired purposes.
For example, the structure and chemical makeup of trees could be modified for a variety of uses:
bioremediation to eliminate pollutants from soil, or the production of renewable feedstocks for bioenergy and fiber products, including paper and chemicals. This process, where only native gene functions are modified, is quite different from transferring novel proteins across vastly different kinds of species, which is a large part of the unease about the use of genetically engineered crops in agriculture, Strauss said. The researchers in their new report pointed to trees as "a life form of paramount importance for terrestrial ecosystems and human societies," because of their ecological dominance and provision of so much energy and industrial materials for human societies.
"Arabidopsis is still the plant model that will first give us the basic answers to how plants function," Strauss said. "But it is very exciting to see the knowledge it is yielding being applied to trees, such an important and difficult life form. For many environmental and economic reasons trees are one group of plants that we want to be able to breed more scientifically, and we're now getting closer to the day we can real
Contact: Steven Strauss
Oregon State University