2-plants: Biotech company engineers future forests
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TITLE: Biotech company engineers future forests
SOURCE: Charleston Regional Business Journal, USA, by Dennis Quick
DATE: Jan 27, 2003
------------------ archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html ------------------
Biotech company engineers future forests
Call it genetic engineering for trees. That's how ArborGen, a
Summerville-based biotech company, serves the nation's forest industry.
Using gene transfer techniques, tissue-freezing cryogenics labs and a
foresight that penetrates decades into the forest industry's future
needs, ArborGen develops ways to improve the quality of wood and the
growth and harvesting of trees.
"Producing faster-growing trees is one of the byproducts of our
research," says Dawn Parks, ArborGen's government and public affairs
manager. "We focus mainly on improving wood quality, tree plantation
productivity and pulp and paper manufacturing."
Additionally, the company is finding ways to protect and restore
endangered trees such as the American chestnut, American elm and
Making tree plantations more productive reduces the need to harvest trees
in natural forests, explains Parks. In its efforts to promote sustainable
forestry, which involves harvesting trees without harming the
environment, ArborGen works mainly with two kinds of pine - loblolly and
radiata - and eucalyptus trees. These and other trees ArborGen researches
- such as sweetgum, cottonwood and poplar, grow in many parts of the world.
While ArborGen's research is steered toward commercial uses, "we won't
have a commercial product until about 2010," Parks points out. "This kind
of research takes time and lots of testing." The time element is dictated
by the nature of trees themselves, which usually take 15 to 25 years to
grow, she notes.
Some of the research entails putting tree seedlings in substances that
change the qualities of the tree to fit the needs of ArborGen's
commercial forest clients. "We use a tissue culture containing nutrients
that allows the plants to grow and develop in certain ways," explains
Alice Perry, a research associate at ArborGen.
Since different tree growth varies by climate, trees of the future will
be altered genetically to flourish in their respective environments, she adds.
ArborGen's technologies enable the company to produce entire forests of
identical trees for harvesting. This is done by placing cells from
immature pine seeds in petri dishes and manipulating cell tissues to
improve their quality. The altered tissues are then placed in tubes,
which are then frozen cryogenically by being placed in vats of liquid
"Cryogenics stops the tissues from aging," Perry explains. "The tissues
can be stored forever as long as the containers are filled with liquid
Another ArborGen technology is genetic transformation, in which a
bacterium is used to transfer genes to embryonic pine tree tissues.
"Genetic transformation is the stable introduction of genes into an
organism," explains ArborGen research scientist Dayton Wilde. "There are
many ways to do this, but we use the bacterium. Ours is one of the few
labs in the world that has this technology working."
These experiments are just one kind of ArborGen research activity. The
company also studies its own research methods. Parks emphasizes that it's
through reviewing and tweaking its research techniques that the company
improves the quality of trees. "We want to make sure we've got everything
right before we introduce a commercial product," she says.
ArborGen's efforts are geared to strengthen an industry that Park says
remains numerically healthy. "There are more trees today than there were
70 years ago," she says. According to the American Forest & Paper
Association, about 4 million trees are planted each day in the United
States. Of the nation's 747 million acres of trees, 504 million are
Founded almost three years ago, ArborGen has grown from 13 employees to
nearly 50. But Parks says the company isn't interested in growth for
growth's sake. "Our purpose is to serve the forest industry, and we'll
grow only as necessary."