Ethics of Splicing Genes into Trees

greenthumbzdudeDecember 11, 2013

So I was thinking today how awesome it would be if someone isolated a gene in bamboo that makes it grow really fast and spliced that into a slow growing tree like a white oak. If that were possible we could reforest large areas in a matter of days. You would no longer have to wait 50 years or so for some decent shade. What are your thoughts, should scientist mess with this kind of stuff?

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hortster(6a, southcentral KS)

By doing so would the oak also lose those qualities we think of that fit oak, like strength and longevity? Would it become more like other fast growing ruderal trees such as silver maple, willow and cottonwood, subject to more frequent breakage from softer wood, pests and diseases and generally shorter life spans?
Also, might that create another invasive monster? Sounds a bit "Pandora's-boxish" to me.
hortster

    Bookmark   December 11, 2013 at 11:22AM
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lucky_p

Researchers at SUNY ESF have created transgenic American Chestnut trees - inserting genes from, IIRC, wheat - which look promising enough, with regard to resistance to the chestnut blight fungus, that ACF has embraced them and is working with them to utilize gene transfer technology as part of their approach to developing and reintroducing C.dentata into its former native range.

This post was edited by lucky_p on Wed, Dec 11, 13 at 12:36

    Bookmark   December 11, 2013 at 12:01PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

If it is the case that spliced trees are reproduced by cloning rather than from seed, used for reforestation then we have clonal mono-cultures rather than true, biologically normal populations with natural genetic diversity (on top of the artificially induced presence of the genes of unrelated plants).

The history of monkeying around with organisms like this points to unexpected consequences - chestnut blight became a problem in North America in the first place merely because some chestnut wood was imported - instead of native chestnut wood being used. To proceed with gene splicing on a large scale basis requires the belief that we have the cost/benefit analysis all worked out - and that it is accurate.

    Bookmark   December 11, 2013 at 1:59PM
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greenthumbzdude

just a heads up....bamboo grows on average 3 feet/day so in just over a month a white oak tree would have hit its genetic potential of around 120 feet. Now this is just a thought experiment of course so its genetic potential could vary depending on how the bamboo gene interacts with other genes. As far as wood goes, my guess would be that it would end up being weak wooded however I am sure there are some other genes that could be added to provide some extra strength.Now with the monocultures.....never really thought about that but if you spliced multiple embryos then you would have a population with enough variablity to breed on their own.

This post was edited by greenthumbzdude on Wed, Dec 11, 13 at 15:30

    Bookmark   December 11, 2013 at 3:23PM
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lucky_p

ron...
That's the first I'd heard of the blight being introduced by importation of wood.
Everything I've ever seen written suggested that it came in on live Chinese chestnut seedlings - imported from abroad by a NY nurseryman.

I don't follow ACF closely, but doubt that they're totally abandoning their long-term back-crossing breeding program - but suspect that they view the gene-transfer technology as just another tool in the box to use in moving forward toward their goal.

    Bookmark   December 11, 2013 at 4:58PM
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toronado3800 Zone 6 StLouis(6)

Gene splicing is interesting. Somedays I believe it is the next step past breeding white dogs to have black spots. Others I think it is an unnecessary risk as I have little faith in others. In my understanding someone thought Bradford pears were sterile afterall and that is just a grafted clone.

    Bookmark   December 12, 2013 at 1:48PM
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lucky_p

toro,
Not sure they ever claimed Bradford was sterile - but when there were no other callery pears in the landscape, it had little or nothing to pollenize it, and thus, didn't produce fruit.
Once Aristocrat, Chanticleer, Cleveland, Red Spire, etc. were selected and distributed, the cat was out of the bag...

    Bookmark   December 12, 2013 at 3:02PM
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smivies

" if someone isolated a gene in bamboo that makes it grow really fast and spliced that into a slow growing tree like a white oak."

Plant physiology would indicate that this is not possible....bamboo (monocot grass) has a completely different growth physiology than an Oak (dicot).

Now if you're talking about genes that 'glow in the dark', are Round-up ready, promote tannin production, result in coloured leaves, promote nicotine production, or tweak the chromosomes to something other than 12 diploid...that might be interesting.

    Bookmark   December 12, 2013 at 5:15PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Most kinds of bamboo do not grow 3' per day.

    Bookmark   December 12, 2013 at 5:49PM
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hortster(6a, southcentral KS)

smivies, talkin' out of school here, but if researchers have inserted genes from monocot wheat into dicot American chestnut, what would prevent bamboo genes from going into an oak?
I truly believe that some positives can come from gene splicing. However, the hackles go up because we tend to jump to premature conclusions from "motivated reasoning" in which absolute conclusions are deduced from our desire to see only positive outcomes. It takes years, scores of years, even more to know the full effect of some of these procedures.
If there was only a way to completely control what we do until we are absolutely sure...
hortster

    Bookmark   December 12, 2013 at 8:56PM
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smivies

My point was not that monocot genes couldn't be spliced into dicots, it was that bamboo growth rate is not a single gene, it's hugely more complex than that and demonstrates the fundamental differences between a grass and a tree.
As for wheat genes in American Chestnut...I guess that would work if the chestnut blight is similar enough to wheat rusts and by what mechanism the resistance is exhibited.

    Bookmark   December 12, 2013 at 10:31PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

>If there was only a way to completely control what we do until we are absolutely sure... Make that into a big sign with it written in Japanese characters and erect it over the entrance to the Fukushima plant.

    Bookmark   December 13, 2013 at 12:12AM
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alexander3_gw(6 Pennsylvania)

WRT the suggested example, I don't think it is possible. As smivies says, growth rate is a very complex trait, and even if you could get an oak to grow 90 feet in a month, it would be as skinny as a bamboo shoot, not a typical mighty oak!

Any technology has unforeseen consequences, conventional breeding included. I'm a bit perplexed why there is so much anxiety over transgenic technology. It's not on display here, but in other forums/mailing lists, the hysteria is astonishing to me. It flows from a dishearteningly poor understanding of biology IMO.

Alex

    Bookmark   December 13, 2013 at 8:42AM
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poaky1

Oh, I hope that can't happen. I have a Chestnut oak that grows fast and kinda think the wood may be inferior to the other woods except - Querecus Alba, Quercus Macrocarpa. and other Quercus woods.

    Bookmark   December 13, 2013 at 11:49PM
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poaky1

I want to add that, more importantly, the posts above may show that many people want to agree to some people with the right answers to all our problems. Sadly, our problems can't be solved by the answers of most of our people, out on the street.

    Bookmark   December 14, 2013 at 12:14AM
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greenthumbzdude

okay what if you isolated a gene from a fast growing trees like quaking aspen? that would surely work I think.

    Bookmark   December 14, 2013 at 8:35PM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)

"Not sure they ever claimed Bradford was sterile."

"Although the ‘Bradford’ pear was originally bred as sterile..." - Clemson University Extension Cooperative

"Originally bred to be sterile..." - NC State Cooperative Extension

"The Bradford cultivar was originally supposed to be sterile" - Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition

...and there are THOUSANDS of other sources that make the same claim.
_______________

"...when there were no other callery pears in the landscape, it had little or nothing to pollenize it, and thus, didn't produce fruit."

I'm not sure how true that is. While viable seed may be uncommon without another cultivar, I'm pretty sure I've read that isolated Bradfords have produced offspring. I believe other cultivars are relatively rare in landscapes in this area, but this entire region is blanketed in "wild" callery pears.
_______________

As the guy in Jurassic Park said, "the kind of control you're attempting simply is... it's not possible. If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh... well, there it is."

    Bookmark   December 14, 2013 at 9:35PM
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alexander3_gw(6 Pennsylvania)

I'm wondering if something has been lost in translation in at those sites, so to speak. It's hard to imagine that the original breeders really thought it was sterile when it so clearly is not. I'm guessing they thought it was self incompatible rather than sterile.

    Bookmark   December 14, 2013 at 10:00PM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)

Probably so, somewhere. But, it's not a "new" idea or a new misunderstanding. The thought has been around for a long, long time and quite probably since the plant was introduced here. The moral of this story may be that we cannot always count on what people, that are supposed to be in the know, actually know, and, this greatly magnifies the dangers associated with this topic.

    Bookmark   December 14, 2013 at 11:29PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Regarding the pear, no breeding was involved - it was selected from seeds bought in China. The 'Bradford' name has been used for more than a single clonal selection, with numerous seedlings having been sold under the name.

    Bookmark   December 15, 2013 at 12:37AM
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toronado3800 Zone 6 StLouis(6)

"Regarding the pear, no breeding was involved - it was selected from seeds bought in China. The 'Bradford' name has been used for more than a single clonal selection, with numerous seedlings having been sold under the name."

Really? After one generation of "mutation" someone thought this thing would be sterile?

Is this Bradford thing like me finding albino kid and thinking after a decade of observation "this kid must be sterile"?

    Bookmark   December 15, 2013 at 6:38PM
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blakrab

Horrible idea! Many people don't even have the comprehensive understanding and foresight to recognize negative invasiveness of various imported natural species, much less Frankenstein hybrids!!

Zebra mussels, kudzu & killer bees, anyone?

Here is a link that might be useful: Pyrus calleryana

    Bookmark   December 15, 2013 at 8:43PM
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viburnumvalley(z5/6 KY)

Wow. This really isn't that confusing. And just because there are websites - albeit ones that SHOULD know better - with incorrect or misleading terminology, that still doesn't make it so. Thanks to samMD for the new post with the solidly researched article.

The misunderstanding here - it appears - is that 'Bradford' was selected as a "sterile" tree. The tree was selected for vigor, flower, form, etc. That it reluctantly or never set fruit when reproduced clonally and had no cross-pollination partners nearby was just a happy accident.

Here's a bit clipped from a National Parks Service site, found here:

http://www.nps.gov/plants/alien/pubs/midatlantic/pyca.htm

Background

Callery pear was imported multiple times to the U.S., including the first introduction in 1909 to the Arnold Arboretum and an introduction in 1916 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for development of fire blight resistance in the common pear (Pyrus communis), which was devastating the commercial pear industry. It was widely planted as a rootstock for common pear long before it gained interest as an ornamental. Around 1950, the ornamental value and hardiness of Callery pear were recognized, leading to the development of a number of cultivars, including ‘Bradford.’ Cultivars in the U.S. originated from China and represent different genotypes. While some genotypes are self-incompatible, meaning they require cross pollination from another genotype in order to set seed, others can pollinate themselves. Different genotypes growing near each other (e.g., within about 300 ft.) can cross-pollinate and produce fruit with viable seed. Also, cultivars are often grafted onto seed-grown rootstocks with varying genotypes; if the plant produces shoots from the rootstock (which it often does), then these shoots and the graft can pollinate one another. Thus, the Bradford pear cultivar is one of several cultivars (varieties) of Callery pear capable of spreading and being invasive. Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’ is one genotype. It is propagated asexually (by grafting and cuttings) and does not change over time. Any plant resulting from a seed produced by Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’ is a different genotype of Pyrus calleryana and not a member of any cultivar (unless somebody propagates that seedling and names it as a new cultivar). The plants that spread in natural areas are not cultivars. They are sexually reproducing populations consisting of multiple genotypes that recombine every generation.

I think it is pretty self-explanatory. Hyperbole about Bradford pears setting fruit in isolation can have multiple answers - most of which is that they really aren't isolated. The simplest fact that it is a tree grafted onto seedling understock which can sprout and flower - producing the cross-pollination opportunity "in house" - is likeliest to be the reason.

And I cannot believe that with the longstanding nursery tradition in the Volunteer State - and the research university housed in Knoxville - that one could state that "other cultivars are relatively rare in landscapes in this area". There are 31 TNLA members in Knoxville alone, and I'd gather that there are more than a few in the general territory. That's just growers, which doesn't include garden centers, landscape contractors, and mailorder purchasers. It doesn't take many partners to make the fertile fruit/seeds.

Hollywood epics are going to be low on the list of sources of fact-based science in this regard, too.

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Here is a link that might be useful: NPS link about Bradford Pear

    Bookmark   December 15, 2013 at 8:51PM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)

VV, I may be misreading you, but it seems like you might be missing the point. The point is that the facts are not always known by those responsible for the distribution of technology. So, it's not that the fertility of Bradford's is unknown, it's that people make mistakes and cannot always be counted on to make the correct decisions or give accurate advice about what should and shouldn't be release onto the scene.

I'm not sure it really makes that much difference here in this conversation on GardenWeb (as far as I know, one of us is not likely to be making the decision about what should and shouldn't be tried relative to gene splicing), but it doesn't hurt to keep in mind that people (even the "experts") aren't infallible.

Oh, and as for the JP quote, I think it's relatively on target. A morsel of truth doesn't always have to come strait from an oracle.

    Bookmark   December 16, 2013 at 12:19AM
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famartin(z5 NE NV)

There are both good and bad consequences to this sort of tampering. Given that we have a long history of tampering with things with which maybe we shouldn't, and, *in general* the world is a better place now than, say, 200 years ago, I will support it... which is to say, I support it just as much as all the other tampering with nature that we have done and are already doing.

Lets face facts: When we mess with nature, the bottom line is how it affects us. Either right now, or long long down the road.

    Bookmark   December 16, 2013 at 1:57AM
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cousinfloyd

famartin, I agree that perhaps the best way to consider these questions is from a wider historical perspective, but I think it's debatable whether life is better now than 200 years ago, especially if the world includes all the people that live in the urban slums of Africa, India, South America, etc., in places like Syria, the Congo, Somalia, Iraq, etc. with suicide bombers, chemical weapons attacks, and other forms of modern violence, and in Chinese high rises under communist control. Arguments could even be made that the life of traffic jams, office cubicles, big box stores, detachment from nature, extending life expectancy while more and more depending on medicine to keep us alive despite increasing health problems and obesity, broken families, etc. isn't so good after all, despite the obvious advantages of the modern day. Whether new technologies like GMO's are desirable also leaves very important questions about what the best pace is for adopting new technologies. I think we also have to ask whether our standard of living can be maintained or whether collapse or some kind of global disaster is likely.

    Bookmark   December 19, 2013 at 9:05AM
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greenthumbzdude

Well, nothing lasts forever so I think we should do what we can now while the technology is available.

    Bookmark   December 19, 2013 at 9:48AM
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brandon7 TN_zone(7)

"Well, nothing lasts forever..."

...especially when people start monkeying with it.

"...so I think we should do what we can now while the technology is available."

Oh, you think we should monkey with it, even before we know what we're doing.
_____

I'm just playing devil's advocate here. I'm not an anti-technologist, but I am for more carefully approaching things we don't fully understand.

    Bookmark   December 19, 2013 at 10:15AM
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hortster(6a, southcentral KS)

Speaking of monkeying...Darwin said, "Building a better mousetrap merely results in smarter mice." When we think that we have found a way to get around Ma Nature's "inconveniences" pretty soon it becomes apparent that we have just sidestepped one thing to be broadsided by another.
hortster

    Bookmark   December 19, 2013 at 2:27PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Since seedlings other than the original selection raised from seeds bought in China have been sold as 'Bradford' when people are talking about the cultivar and how it behaves they may not be talking about the original seedling in any given instance.

The source I am using says the Chinese seeds were bought in 1919.

    Bookmark   December 19, 2013 at 3:08PM
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