GENTECH archive 8.96-97


Pulp Science Fiction

This is one of a series of stories on GE in this week's AsiaWeek:

                                Pulp Science Fiction

                            Straighter, stronger trees -- faster

THE BEST AND NOTHING but the best. That's the promise at a state-of-the-art
tree "factory" at Parung, just outside
Jakarta. The $6.1-million complex set up by PT Mon-fori Nusantara is
combining genetically aided breeding with robotics
to supply Southeast Asia's forestry industry with fast-growing "elite"
trees that stand taller, straighter and stronger than any

First off the line: varieties of acacia and eucalyptus that can be logged
in five to eight years compared to the usual 15 to 20
years. Even the maturing period for a tropical hardwood like teak has been
slashed from 20 years to 15. Forestry experts
hope this means more timber can be produced without further depleting
rainforests. Paper-maker Barito Pacific is already
testing improved acacias on scrub land in Sumatra. 

Monfori, a joint venture between U.S. agrochemical giant Monsanto and the
Australian biotechnology specialist, ForBio,
begins operation in November. Ten million saplings will be produced yearly
at the nursery, where a hermetically-sealed
robotic system will clone trees from selected tissue and nurture them until
ready for transplanting. "We have developed the
means to produce the best that nature can offer," says Monfori production
manager Kartika Adiwilaga. The elite trees could
grow at twice the ordinary forest's rate of 25 cubic meters per-hectare

The key, Adiwilaga says, lies in finding the DNA "markers" for desired
traits such as straight stems and wider girths.
Foresters can pick better parents for cross-breeding and select hybrids at
the sapling stage rather than several years on. And
with automation of tissue culture, Monfori can propagate young trees in
sufficiently large quantities to meet the needs of
big-scale operations and the Indonesian government, which is pushing local
forestry and plywood companies to produce
more of their logs from industrial forests.

Genetically altered trees are next, though not for a couple of years.
Greens who object to gene tinkering, might find favor
with a change in the lignin structure so wood breaks down easily. With less
chemicals to extract cellulose for paper-making,
that's a plus for mills -- and for the environment. 

--By Keith Loveard / Jakarta

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Ron Epstein

Research Professor                       Lecturer
Institute for World Religions        Philosophy Department
2304 McKinley Avenue                San Francisco State University
Berkeley, CA 94703                     1600 Holloway Avenue
(510) 848-3440                            (415) 338-3140                  

"Genetic Engineering and Its Dangers":