Transgenic Trees in Test Tube and Field Trials

A field trial is expected to document in itself a well-developed research project that has led past various testing phases in lab based work to a stage in which the tree can be taken to the next round of tests in the field. It is, however, not just the success of the primary lab-based work that, under consideration of all the other factors, influences what happens in the field. The success of the field trials will also determine whether in the future more work is invested in the lab-based work. The dimensions of field releases of trans-genic trees in trials can therefore only with great care be seen as a direct, simple function of the progress made in development in the lab. Many other factors come into the equation.

The closer research and development with transgenic trees gets to the field trial or release and thus the closer it gets to structures of primary production in "classical" forestry, the more it carries on some of the burdens of technical "peculiarities" and socio-economic involvements that are typical for forestry

USDA Forest Service, Institute of Forest Genetics, Pacific Southwest Research Station, USDA Forest Service, Davis CA, USA

Tree Transgenesis: Recent Developments

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2006

worldwide. On the technical and economics side, long production times can be identified that on the one hand cause a low return - whether in a classical management scenario or in the development of a new GM-tree based product - and on the other hand delay the progress of research and development considerably (Speidel 1984). On the social side the involvement of many stakeholders is typical and is found in either, e.g. the afforestation of a stand near a settlement or the start of a field trial (Kopf 2002).

This latter point is well reflected in the fact that a transgenic tree, if studied as a "tree" rather than a "seedling-like plantlet in a test tube" with the release of a transgenic plant in the long term and some potential environmental implications causes a great deal of concern to the public, as documented in a flood of non-technical and newspaper articles, media reports, political and lobbying activities and in some cases vehement protests (Arthur 1999; Highfield 1999; Miller 2003).

Keeping in mind the aforementioned limitations, the number and type of field trials, and the development of these data over time give an impression of both, work on GM trees already carried out successfully at an earlier stage of the development process, but also gives an impression on what further research may build up and, if in the context of present economic and political developments, into what directions future work may be pushed. In the following it is attempted to provide an overview of past and present field trials worldwide, with the aim of developing an image that allows some insight into the future developments that may shape work on transgenic trees.

The global situation regarding releases of transgenic trees to the field is nowhere documented completely and in detail. The main reason for this is a distinct lack of data and information. This is partly due to the nature of some data as "confidential business information" as in recent years a large percentage of field releases were carried out by the Research and Development labs of large forest companies, particularly outside Europe. Some companies, when approached by researchers or journalists, clearly stick to a "no-information" policy, leaving requests ignored and questions unanswered.

Obtaining information is in many cases a particular challenge, as the respective companies are often joint ventures between various other firms, often in the pulp and paper industry, or other industrial branches and are subject to frequent change by merger, takeover, sale, closure, re-naming etc. or partners leaving the joint venture. Under such circumstances it can also be difficult to trace back the historic continuity of work carried out by individual companies. This is true not only specifically for firms that carry out GM work on trees, but also for other companies in the field of industrial and plantation forestry (Carrere and Lohman 1996).

Some insight however is possible due to the legal and administrative structures in some countries that require permission for field trials and list releases together with some limited information in publicly accessible databases.

Therefore, for the following overview several sources that are quite different in nature have been used. For the US there is a detailed database listing all applications for permission, and respective notifications of a field release of a transgenic organism, which also includes trees ( Equally detailed is the Canadian database published for all field releases of transgenic plants online at The same field releases are also partly covered in a database that lists the equivalent applications for Europe, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand that is provided by OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) ( The situation in the EU is separately documented in an EU database ( and gmp_browse_geninf.asp).

While these databases are thought to be comprehensive, they do not give any specific information on the size of the respective field trial nor on whether this trial has in the end actually been carried out, or indeed at what point in time it has actually been terminated. They also do not show, whether an application for or a notification of a field trial is for a completely new experiment or simply the continuation of an earlier experiment with plants of the same type - or even the same plant specimens.

However, the regulative frameworks in many countries are at present still being developed. In these cases information was sought on work carried out in the respective country via academic networks. This data is backed up with information from scientific publications, non-technical publications and newspaper articles, environmentally concerned publications as well as personal communication with researchers and persons involved in environmental NGOs (non-governmental organization). It is an inherent problem of the evaluation of a range of diverse sources that the information obtained may in some cases not match or even be contradictory.

In this overview, first work on forest trees is covered. This includes species whose traditional use falls in either of the three classical functions of managed forests: production of timber and non-timber forest products, protection of the landscape, and the recreational function (Dieterich 1953). Trees whose main function is the production of fruit are discussed in a separate section. In addition there are also a few examples of genetically engineered trees in field trials, whose potential economic application is in the production of an entirely new product or service that is only tenuously linked to the traditional use of trees in forestry and fruit farming.

There are a few examples of transgenic trees that have been genetically modified to improve their use for ornamental, landscape or environmental purposes, which however do overlap with the function of creating a more productive forest crop. There is one field trial documented for Amelanchier, which has mainly ornamental use. In numbers such trials however are completely irrelevant and are mentioned here solely for completeness.

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