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Information about GM trees, biotechnology and genomics in the Arborea project

This section aims to present generic information about GM trees, biotechnology and genomics in the Arborea project. It also provides useful links to learn more about tree and plant biotechnology.

Is the Arborea project developing GM trees? Why not?

The Arborea project is improving the fundamental understanding of tree biology. We are STUDYING how trees grow and develop, how they make wood and defend themselves against diseases or insects. A better understanding of the biology of trees is viewed by many as essential to develop applications in forestry. Better forest management, improved forest productivity and sustainability are examples of expected impacts.

Arborea makes use of genomics and biotechnology to investigate the role of tree genes (the genetic material in trees). We are learning about the role of genes and DNA in various aspects of tree biology. As with most plants, animals and bacteria, one of the methods that is commonly used for research involves genetic modification for analysis in the laboratory. Does this mean we want to make GM trees for use in forest plantations or promote the use of GM trees? No, Arborea is not developing GM trees or promoting their use in forestry. When it comes to applied outcomes of forest genomics, there are many possibilities and opportunities. The development of GM trees only represents one such possibility. The outcomes of our research should be especially well suited to developing applications like the selection of trees from natural populations, for the establishing well adapted and productive plantations.

Why not develop GM trees for use in forest plantations? The development of GM trees is viewed by many as premature. Much remains to be learned regarding desirable genetic manipulations, their long term environmental impacts and their tangible benefits. In this context, precautionary principles are recommended. Concerns have also been raised as to whether GM trees are publicly acceptable. For now, large-scale plantation of GM trees is not permitted in Canada. Actually, their development is not endorsed by provincial agencies responsible for managing forest lands. Field testing is allowed under restricted conditions. The following sections provide more details on biotechnology, genomics and GM trees.

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Scientific discoveries in biotechnology and their impacts on each of us

The term biotechnology describes several technologies. By definition biotechnology is the use of living organism to satisfy human needs. Wine and beer making are sometimes referred to as the first biotechnologies discovery by man. However biotechnology gained public prominence after the industrial revolution, with applications in new plant production techniques, new medicines and diagnostic tests for human diseases. Genetic engineering is also a form of biotechnology; it involves gene manipulation (see below). Genetic engineering emerged in the 1980s, when scientists discovered how to transfer a piece of genetic material from one organism to another. This technique can be used to introduce a particular character into the recipient organism. For instance, genetic engineering has enabled manipulating a bacterium to produce insulin. Safer synthetic vaccines that are not based on the production of infectious virus are also possible with genetic engineering.

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What about DNA, Genes and Chromosomes

The genetic code of all living beings, including humans, is similar to a computer program. All the information to accomplish a specific task is written in a specific programming code. However, living organisms are way more complex than computers and their actual traits depend on interactions between the genetic code and the environment. The genetic code is encrypted in chromosomes located in the cell nucleus, the control panel of the living cell. Deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, is composed of four building blocks, or bases. They are the basic code or alphabet that spells out the information contained in genes. There names are guanine, adenine, thymine, and cytosine (G, A, T, C). Genes in turn are grouped to make up chromosomes. The genetic code is universal since the same language is shared by all living organisms. The universality of the code allows one to compare genes from bacteria, humans and plants.

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What are transgenic, genetically engineered, or genetically modified trees? Why make them?

Transgenic, genetically engineered, and genetically modified are different terms that all mean the same thing. A "transgenic" tree is one that has been changed by adding or removing one or more specific genes. Transgenic trees harbour unique gene combinations that are not encountered in other trees, whether they are obtained directly from forests or through selective tree breeding. Genetic manipulation to obtain transgenic trees is pursued for diverse reasons. In the Arborea project, this technology is helping us understand the role of selected genes. In other words, it is helping us gather fundamental information on the biology of trees.

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How are transgenic trees made?

Genetic manipulation requires the introduction of new DNA into an organism. The result is the acquisition of a new character. The usual method involves cleaving a DNA chain at a specific location with a restriction enzyme (these enzymes serve as molecular scissors). The restriction enzyme is used to cut a plasmid or vector (a shuttle molecule of circular DNA found in certain bacteria). The DNA fragment is inserted into the plasmid at the site of the cut. The resulting molecule is called a construct which is a specific vehicle to move DNA from one organism to another. The construct can then be introduced into a recipient cell. For plants, Agrobacterium tumefaciens, a naturally occurring soil bacterium is widely used to transfer genes. This bacterium has a plasmid vector into which the new gene is inserted. During the natural processes of Agrobacterium infection of a plant cell, the plasmid (or construct) will insert the new gene into the host tree cell. Once the new gene is incorporated into the DNA of the host tree cell, the plantlets are produced with the new gene. This new gene will then be passed on to future generations, if the trees are allowed to produce pollen and seed. However it is possible to design transgenic trees that do not produce pollen or seeds resulting in their biological containment. Arborea transgenic trees will not go into field test and are maintained in confined greenhouses.

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Why has the genetic engineering plants been the subject of such media attention?

Genetic manipulations can overcome most of the biological barriers that exist between species. For some, this technology is not natural since it moves genes across biological barriers. As mentioned above, all living organisms, whether they are mice, humans or others, have the same genetic code. The genetic code programs living cells, telling them, when and where to make specific proteins. In turn, the proteins carry out the vast majority of the tasks required for the growth, survival of cells and entire organisms. Therefore, DNA from a flower and a bacterium are practically interchangeable because the have the same basic composition. Plant and tree breeding methods developed by humans over the centuries cross some species barriers to produce many of today's plant varieties. Plant genetic engineering has expanding these capabilities. It is much less limited by the barriers between species. It is also more technically demanding and more specific. Concern arising from this technology is the subject of much debate, concern and apprehension. More information can be found through the links provided below.

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What is genomics?

During the last decade, the human genome project opened the way to a sophisticated and exiting science, that of genomics. Genomics investigates the DNA sequence, the structure and function of the tens of thousands of genes found in an organism. The entire complement of genes found in an organism is referred to collectively as the genome. Ultimately, genomics aims to understand the relationship between gene activities and cell functions. Genomics can be subdivided into structural genomics (or the development of genome maps and sequences) and functional genomics (or the discovery of the biological function of particular genes, and how sets of genes and their products work together).

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What are the applications of tree genomics?

Now that the need to protect the world's forests is well recognized, better management practices and technologies are needed to conserve and better use our current resources. In Canada and several other countries, selecting and breeding of trees that are well adapted to growing in productive tree plantations has been ongoing for decades. Genomics research is expected to identify DNA sequences or markers to help accelerate and improve the accuracy of tree selection and breeding. This application is referred to as molecular breeding or also, as marker-assistant tree selection.

To apply the knowledge developed through forest genomic research, there is no need to convert Canada's forests to transgenic plantations, or monocultures or fibre- farms. Only a small fraction (about 0.1%) of the total forested area in Canada is currently re-planted each year. Some sites are managed intensively for wood and wood fibre production. Selection and breeding of trees, whether using DNA markers or not, is important in ensuring the success and productivity of forest plantations. Productive tree plantations are part of an overall strategy to meet growing demands for wood-based products, without encroaching on old-growth forests and wild-life habitats. They will help ensure the long-term environmental sustainability of Canada's forest resources.

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To learn more about tree and plant biotechnology on the web:

  • Glossary, Génome Québec
  • Genome Canada, about ethics
  • The Institute of Forest Biotechnology works for societal, ecological and economic benefits from appropriate uses of biotechnology in forestry worldwide.
  • Biotechnology at the Canadian Forest Service
  • From the laboratory to the field - how genetically modified trees are regulated in Canada (Natural resource Canada)
  • A comprehensive review of the results of EC-supported research into the safety of Genetically Modified Organisms
  • Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN)
  • The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) is a not-for-profit organization that delivers the benefits of new agricultural biotechnologies to the poor in developing countries.
  • The European Association for Bioindustries
  • BioPortal providing a general overview of some major online information regarding the ethics and issues surrounding biotechnology (Government of Canada).
  • Transgenic Trees, Industry Canada