Emblings in our forests?

According to Business in Vancouver (pay wall link) last week (August 22-28, 2006), a BC seedling producer is in the news (link is dead). The company is talking about using their biotech product to help BC’s forests recover from the losses caused by the Mountain Pine Beetle. We’ll need lots of trees to do that, and the company could ramp up production pretty fast.

Still, I expect they’ll get some pushback from the very foresters they hope to help. And unless they’re careful, the company will run into lots of opposition from the public – can’t be helped with a production process with the unfortunate name of somatic embryogenesis.

The technology they have is not all that new. It was developed late last century as a way to reproduce trees. While it *is* biotechnology, it doesn’t change the genetic structure of plants. It involves chopping up very young seed embryos and treating the pieces with various lab and chemical tricks to form undifferentiated masses of cells, or calluses. You can harvest plantlets off those calluses for years and make trees. (As a very loose metaphor, just imagine a sourdough culture in the fridge that you use periodically for pancakes or bread.)

Of course, if you introduce genetically engineered material, that’s what you get in the callus. Many scientists hail the process as being a great way to beef up numbers in transgenic tests. But most of us won’t like that for forestry use. The thought of engineered trees from labs lends itself to all kinds of imaginative meanderings. I’m sure there would be a big push back on the idea, and not just from environmentalists. I think the producer knows that.

I suspect the Ministry of Forests wouldn’t like it either. Their own excellent geneticists argue that because of the diverse BC ecology, our forests contain a lot of genetic variation. We can breed trees to suit and keep a lot of the natural variation intact. Why alter the tree’s genetics. It might make some sense in private timberlands down south; it doesn’t make sense in BC’s public forest. I think the producer knows that too.

Actually, back in the 1990s I had a hand in developing nursery practices for somatic seedlings of interior spruce. The material came from regular seed, from normal trees. We affectionately called the plantlets ’emblings’ (from embryos), rather than seedlings (from seed). Actually, we went as far as trying to take rooted cuttings from older emblings too. Heh, we called them stumblings (aka stuck emblings, ’cause you had to stick the cuttings in peat to get them rooted). That term didn’t (ahem) stick.

I also helped set up some of the initial plots to test the growth of emblings in the forest. There was a lot of concern about long term performance, as well as with maintaining genetic diversity in the resulting crop. After all, the research lab had only selected a few original seeds from a few original trees. All the technology the young plantlets were subject to, from callus formation, through lab extraction, through nursery, could easily result in some selection too. Those plants that could endure all the manipulation survived. Those that couldn’t endure didn’t last.

Was there enough diversity in those that were left? How were we to deal with that? Were the original trees the ones we wanted to be using as ‘parents’ for these new trees? Did the original seeds represent the ‘parents’ good traits, or were they going to produce the sickly runts of the family? So many questions were being asked that the Ministry of Forests decided to wait. They wanted the answers from field testing before allowing emblings for reforestation programs. And of course, any genetic trickery was out of the question.

The cost was also an issue. I expect it’s has come down with time, but back then a finished embling cost 60 cents to $1.00, depending who you talked to. That was expensive when most seedling costs were below 40 cents. The cost will have to be comparable if foresters are going to consider planting them over large areas. Buying and planting seedlings is a big cost consideration in reforestation.

Those were some of the issues early on, and I expect things haven’t changed too much since then. Transgenics aside, the technology has some niche uses, but the research results are not in for wide scale forestry use. Most of the test plots are not even 15 years old yet. The trees are just getting started. Without those test results, I doubt we’ll see any large scale production of emblings for reforestation in BC anytime soon.

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