Poplar genetically modified not to harm air quality grow as well as non-modified trees

[cough..shades of Reagan…cough~]

University of Arizona

While providing benefits to the environment, some trees also emit gases to the atmosphere that worsen air pollution and alter climate. Field trials in Oregon and Arizona show that poplar trees, which emit trace amounts of the gas isoprene, can be genetically modified not to harm air quality while leaving their growth potential unchanged.

The findings, published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are important because poplar plantations cover 9.4 million hectares (36,294 square miles) globally – more than double the land used 15 years ago. Poplars are fast-growing trees that are a source of biofuel and other products including paper, pallets, plywood and furniture frames.

Poplars and other trees used in plantation agroforestry, including palms and eucalyptus, produce isoprene in their leaves in response to climate stress such as high temperature and drought. The isoprene alleviates those stresses by signaling cellular processes to produce protective molecules; however, isoprene is so volatile that millions of metric tons leak into the atmosphere each year.

The emitted isoprene reacts with gases produced by tailpipe pollution to produce ozone, which is a respiratory irritant. Isoprene also causes higher levels of atmospheric aerosol production, which reduces the amount of direct sunlight reaching the earth (a cooling effect), and it causes the global warming potential of methane in the atmosphere to increase (a warming effect). The warming effect is most likely greater than the cooling effect. The net effect of emitted isoprene is to worsen respiratory health and, most likely, warm the atmosphere.

A research collaboration led by scientists at the University of Arizona, the Helmholtz Research Center in Munich, Portland State University and Oregon State University genetically modified poplars not to produce isoprene, then tested them in three- and four-year trials at plantations in Oregon and Arizona.

The researchers found that trees whose isoprene production was genetically suppressed did not suffer ill effects in terms of photosynthesis or “biomass production.” They were able to make cellulose, used in biofuel production, and grow as well as trees that were producing isoprene. The discovery came as a surprise, given the protective role of isoprene in stressful climates, especially in the case of the Arizona plantation.

“The suppression of isoprene production in the leaves has triggered alternative signaling pathways that appear to compensate for the loss of stress tolerance due to isoprene,” said Russell Monson, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona and lead author of the study. “The trees exhibited a clever response that allowed them to work around the loss of isoprene and arrive at the same outcome, effectively tolerating high temperature and drought stress.”

“Our findings suggest that isoprene emissions can be diminished without affecting biomass production in temperate forest plantations,” said study co-author Steven Strauss, a distinguished professor of forest biotechnology at Oregon State University. “That’s what we wanted to examine – can you turn down isoprene production, and does it matter to biomass productivity and general plant health? It looks like it doesn’t impair either significantly.”

The researchers used a genetic engineering tool known as RNA interference. RNA transmits protein coding instructions from each cell’s DNA, which holds the organism’s genetic code. The genetic tools for modifying the trees, and the protein analyses that revealed changes in the use of biochemical pathways, were developed by scientists at the Institute of Biochemical Plant Pathology, Helmholtz Research Center in Munich, Germany, who collaborated on the study.

“RNA interference is like a vaccination – it triggers a natural and highly specific mechanism whereby specific targets are suppressed, be they the RNA of viruses or endogenous genes,” Strauss said. “You could also do the same thing through conventional breeding. It would be a lot less efficient and precise, and it might be a nightmare for a breeder who may need to reassess all of their germplasm and possibly exclude their most productive cultivars as a result, but it could be done. New technologies like CRISPR, short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, which allows for precise DNA editing at specific stretches of the genetic code, should work even better.”

In an additional discovery, the researchers found that trees were able to adjust to the loss of isoprene because most plantation growth takes place during cooler and wetter times of the year.

“This means that, for this species, the natural seasonal cycle of growth works in favor of high biomass production when the beneficial effects of isoprene are needed least,” Monson explained.

This observation also clarified an adaptive role for isoprene in natural forests, where protection that enhances survival during mid-season climate stress is likely more important than processes that promote growth early in the season.

“The fact that cultivars of poplar can be produced in a way that ameliorates atmospheric impacts without significantly reducing biomass production gives us a lot of optimism,” Monson said. “We’re striving toward greater environmental sustainability while developing plantation?scale biomass sources that can serve as fossil fuel alternatives.”

###

Scientists from Portland State University, the University of California, Riverside, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and the Institute for Microbiology in Greifswald, Germany, also collaborated on the study.

Funding was provided in part by the National Science Foundation (1065790 and 1754430), the U.S Department of Agriculture (2013-67009-21008), the German Ministry of Education and Research (0315412), Portland General Electric, Portland State University, Oregon State University and the Water, Environmental, and Energy Solutions program supported by the Technology and Research Initiative Fund from the state of Arizona.

From EurekAlert!

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77 thoughts on “Poplar genetically modified not to harm air quality grow as well as non-modified trees

  1. While I was still working, I collaborated with Steve Strauss on earlier trials with transgenic hybrid poplars, our trials involved a Bt gene that gave protection from the cottonwood leaf beetle. While the technology worked beautifully, no one seemed willing go to the expense, and blood, sweat, and tears that would be required to reach fully deregulated status. I suspect this will be more of the same, especially for a trait that has no economic value.

    Glad to see that Dr. Strauss is still plugging away, however.

    • But it can be claimed that this is climate change related, so cost doesn’t come into it!🤡

      • I hear you. However, achieving fully deregulated status is a non-trivial exercise that can take many years and 10’s of millions of dollars. Even the very successful transgenic American chestnut, which is resistant to chestnut blight (made AC almost extinct) still hasn’t been fully deregulated. This one should have been a no-brainer, but people get weird about trees.

        If these poplars go anywhere, it will take many millions of other people’s money.

        • This is a typical example of scientists wanting to play god. They imagine they can design the way a tree works better than millions of years of evolution. And for what, a may-be-could-be that the greenhouse effect is greater than the cooling aerosol effect ( that conclusion almost certainly does not bear closer scrutiny in view of the weasel words surrounding the claim).

          • Greg – Your response is utter nonsense. No one is trying to play God. Rather, they are using the brains that God gave them to work on real world problems. Now I admit this is more of an academic exercise (note that there are no forest products companies involved in the research…), but in your world, American chestnut would become extinct, and farmers would still be dousing their fields with very toxic chemicals.

      • Isn’t isoprene one of the VOCs produced by trees which act as nuclei for water droplet formation leading to the localised rainfall that make rainforests ?

        Might not be such a good idea unless restricted to the urban environment?

        • In the urban environment poplar trees are destructive. Their roots will go through anything in their quest for water, notably city and household water mains. Developers like them because they grow quickly and provide shade in a very few years in new housing developments. In Calgary the city is now removing poplars in older neighborhoods and replacing them with trees with less aggressive root systems.

          • Doug – Do you walk to school or carry your lunch?

            Your comments are irrelevant to this discussion. The hybrid cottonwoods grown in this study are used for fiber production, not as shade trees.

      • I have a sense that we would never had heard of this esoteric study had not the authors deemed it necessary to apply the “Climate Contentious” labeling.
        Much real science is not marketable enough to capture the attention of the media fleas.

    • Can this be done in humans from this in the text published here:

      “RNA interference is like a vaccination – it triggers a natural and highly specific mechanism whereby specific targets are suppressed, be they the RNA of viruses or endogenous genes,” Strauss said. “You could also do the same thing through conventional breeding. It would be a lot less efficient and precise, and it might be a nightmare for a breeder who may need to reassess all of their germplasm and possibly exclude their most productive cultivars as a result, but it could be done. New technologies like CRISPR, short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, which allows for precise DNA editing at specific stretches of the genetic code, should work even better.”

      • stuff like this IS being trilled in humans
        however..they had fails ie deaths n duds
        and they admit that the CRISPR Cas9 isnt ideal and does have errors they originally didnt look at enough of the altered chains of dna
        then they talked of using Cas6
        frankly if it sounds too good to be true
        it usually is.
        they seem to have has some succes in using the tech to alter dna in people with CF, time however wil tell if that so and wether unintended effects show up

  2. “The trees exhibited a clever response that allowed them to work around the loss of isoprene and arrive at the same outcome, effectively tolerating high temperature and drought stress.”

    Looks like the trees are a bit smarter than we give them credit for. i am not sure if the same can be said for other life forms.

    • How arrogant are we that we think we need to alter the biota to “save the planet.” Like the natural plants are bad? WOW.

      • I dont think the tree evolved this specific metabolism just to hurt humans. Probably because it was good somehow. So if we take away something good and natural, we make the tree more artificial and less good – supposedly to please the green enviromentalists.

    • The smartness, as you call it, has a more precise synonym: redundancy. There is almost never a function coded for by a single gene — not if it is a core metabolic function, for sure. Nearly all enzymes have multiple isozymes; you would need to find ways to disable all of them to shut down a pathway; the problem is that not all isozymes are known, and it is compounded by the fact that many enzymes are multi-functional, so knocking those out creates unexpected problems elsewhere.

      As a side note, my father spent the last few years of his life helping gum tree growers boost the isoprene pathway — successfully, I hear.

  3. I was told that log cabins were built of popular logs because termites won’t eat it. My grandmother’s house was eaten up by termites but her kitchen cabinets made of popular were untouched

    • Trust me, termites eat poplar (but like pine more). Poplars were probably used because the logs are long, straight, typically knot-free and easy to work. Your source may have meant wormy chestnut, which a lot of barns and cabins were made of, if available, and is not a favorite of termites.

  4. Ya, sure, today they modify poplars to not harm the environment with gas discharges, and tomorrow, what? They’re coming for us older guys some day soon, I think I will dress up in camoflage and get ready for them. Reminds me of the “sniffers” we used in Vietnam to find guys holed up in tunnels. Now I’m dressed up in camo and having flashbacks. Maybe I’ll just have a drink and forget the whole thing?

  5. Creating isoprene takes energy and resources.
    If it were easy to limit isoprene emissions from trees, the odds are the evolution would have found a way to do 10’s of millions of years ago.

    I take the claims that these scientists can drastically reduce isoprene production without harming the trees with a mighty big grain of salt.

    • I thought the same thing. If I were still in the business of growing hybrid cottonwoods, I would be a little leery of this “improvement.”

    • It would be better if they could train the trees to produce polyisoprene (rubber) nodules big enough to collect economically.

    • Mark, I more take to the notion that if reduced VOCs made the difference between success and failure, evolution would have selected those individuals with the trait to carry on the genetic line. I see this GMO as something with little impact outside of the realm of virtue signalling landscapers.

  6. How does the 36,000 SM compare to total fire forestation? Never heard of Isoprene before, where does it register on the GHG list?

  7. Aren’t isoprenes important components in plant antifungals? I wonder if these efforts to prevent air pollution (seems strange to blame trees for air pollution, but I guess the point is the farming of the trees that seems to be bothering the researchers) will lower the trees’ ability to ward off fungus and will make the products made from the wood more susceptible to fungus. Sometimes fiddling around with Nature can backfire and cause other, sometimes worse, problems.

  8. ” The emitted isoprene reacts with gases produced by tailpipe pollution to produce ozone,……”
    Ummm…ozone is, remind me again, a good or bad thing to have more of??????

      • Hmmm…upon reflection though – Ozone emitters inside (confined place) vs tree emitting Ozone (non confined) may be less of an issue.
        Those with the sensitivity are, well, unhappy either way – sorry to say.
        BUT what has evolution been doing with all that Ozone over the millions of years?????
        Making use of it once it gets to an altitude where it can be beneficial maybe???

        Just pondering ….

        • The article talks about a concentration threshold where, to be effective in reducing smells in the house it becomes toxic for humans. Below that threshold it does nothing for the household but is in low enough concentration that it’s not a toxic risk either.

          It becomes clear that O3 in the atmosphere is very low concentrations, therefor no risk to humans unless you’ve got some serious allergies with it.

  9. Human hubris.
    Changes to plants because people can force a change, not because they are improving the plant. Fickle changes, not because of dire need but because the researchers assume they know better than millions of years evolution.

    “Poplars are fast-growing trees that are a source of biofuel”

    Only if poplars are the only tree that grows in a locale.
    If the wood isn’t cut and dried immediately upon felling the tree, the wood quickly goes punky, that is wood deteriorating fungal infections. Builders like poplar wood for dry interiors away from humidity and wet weather, because the poplar wood is easily cut or shaped into excellent trim and molding.

    When burned, poplar fires are fast burning fires giving off little heat while leaving a large amount of ash.

    • Not to worry ATheoK – hybrid cottonwoods grown in intensively managed plantations are processed almost immediately after harvest. They don’t get rotten.

    • F.LEGHORN – I know you intended this to be funny, but trust me it isn’t. I have colleagues who had their labs destroyed by eco-fascists, and the company I worked for had one of their offices burned to the ground in a Christmas eve arson a number of years ago.

  10. Don’t worry, this fad too will fade away. All this does is nothing, absolutely nothing. Next will be the climate clowns suggesting we “fill in” the volcanoes because they emit gases. One needs to dismiss the premise of global warming because there is none… There is climate change but that’s like saying a bear does sh!t in the woods…

    • Rick

      No such thing as climate change either. Somewhere on the planet it’s raining/snowing/blowing a hooly.

      It’s temperature that’s changing, not climate.

  11. But, but, but.

    This is Frankenstein science, or is it. “” Good that science can so modify something for “”The Greater r Good””, or is it ??

    What takes Nature millions of years can now be done in a few years, good or bad

    MJE VK5ELL

    • Michael – And so what? Transgenic technology is saving the iconic American chestnut. This is most excellent.

      Over the past nearly 25 years now, GM technology has saved farmers many millions, and increased yields around the world.

  12. This research is the reason we can’t let these pestilent scientists on the loose to do their thing! We already knew they would pronounce the process “non harmful”. Doesn’t it take years of testing all aspects of this and it’s effect on other trees, etc.

    Several decades ago, I remember reading in connection with the spruce budworm infestations that they discovered affected trees caused nearby other tree species to emit chemicals unsavoury to the budworm, resulting in containment of the infestation. Other trees protecting mixed forests!!

    It must be a benefit having other species mixed in. They finally concluded that monoculture replanting was the reason the infestations became so widespread in the first place! Maybe isoprene was the saviour juice they gave off under this ‘stress’! Couldn’t find a link.

    • Gary – you couldn’t find a link because one doesn’t exist. You post is nothing but more, recycled eco-drivel.

      I was in this business, and you don’t have any idea what you are bleating on about.

      • LK: Eco drivel? This must be the first time anyone has accused me of that during comments on WUWT since 2007!! I did read such a theory some 50 yrs ago or so.
        and possibly it has been debunked. However you give no link or any other information supports you are an expert on these matters.

        I’m merely a geologist, metallurgist and mining engineer so I’m not an expert on the physiology of trees. My point, not clearly expressed perhaps, is that I don’t want global warming alarmists dickering with trees to save the planet.

        • Gary – Well, I didn’t go around putting articles in newspapers and magazines about my 35+ years of a career in forestry, including a stretch working for a company that, at the time, was one of the largest hybrid cottonwood plantation managers in the nation. And, I know Steve Strauss. I wouldn’t class him as a global warming alarmist.

          Sadly, researchers are like Willie Sutton: they go where the money is. For a number of years, GM research in trees was being supported by forest products companies, and the traits being developed were those that would have had a direct benefit to them. As I noted earlier however, none of these companies were willing to go through the regulatory nightmare, not to mention the public relations WAR that would have been necessary to reach fully deregulated status with a GM tree. This failure of the will bothered me at the time and still does, but I understand it completely.

  13. Ah, the hazy lazy days of summer; blue mountains in the sun. Not many people seem to realise that we of the north live in photo-chemical smog producing conifers by the thousands of miles. Someone should do something about it /sarc

  14. If we could only have a common chemical, maybe a cheap one used in something like refrigeration, that as a side effect would counter the effect of isoprene when released as waste. Perhaps the chemical could even be used in fire suppression, or even in clean up of waste petroleum products, or the low-energy production of ag-based lubricants and fuels. We could even sign an international treaty to agree to produce it, say in some large Canadian city.

    • Steven: Burning coal gave us prosperity, technological dev, modern health an longevity. Yeah 4000 miners die annually in Chinese coal mines, the operative word being Chinese, but the switch to renubles in EU kill 50k -100k people every winter – mainly poor/elderly.

  15. So they have just discovered that poplars have been emitting isoprene since forever and now it’s a “problem” that needs to be fixed by expensive intervention. For god’s sake, don’t tell them that just about all trees emit methane to some degree. Since forever.

  16. What is important is the following :
    Funding was provided in part by the National Science Foundation (1065790 and 1754430), the U.S Department of Agriculture (2013-67009-21008), the German Ministry of Education and Research (0315412), Portland General Electric, Portland State University, Oregon State University and the Water, Environmental, and Energy Solutions program supported by the Technology and Research Initiative Fund from the state of Arizona.
    They won grants from all those sources !
    And they will be able to milk that mother lode for years and years.

  17. Hybrid Poplars are generally not long-lived trees, although they grow relatively fast and sturdy. Will these traits be carried in the seeds like GMO corn or are these trees just “mules”?

    • Pop – Yes, the trait would be carried in both pollen and seeds. However, only if there are other cottonwoods in the area, that happen to be flowering at the same time, would there be the potential for out-crossing.

    • Deregulated tree trusts, up to something. Fast and sturdy. Plugging away, trait resistant. Popular particular to termites. Get leery of growing rotten hybrid cottonwood. The test period on a rather short rotation. Potential loss of fairly robust growing regime.

  18. What I love about this is the idea of using GMO to combat climate change! It must make the Left’s heads explode!

  19. Great, they can produce GM trees to cure the planet, but producing GM Golden rice to cure humans is a step too far.

  20. The isoprene alleviates those stresses by signaling cellular processes to produce protective molecules; however, isoprene is so volatile that millions of metric tons leak into the atmosphere each year.

    Is there a reasonable bases for this modification in the first place? On the one hand the study acknowledges isoprene production a defense system. On the other hand the isoprene production may cool or more likely warm the planet, plus eventually increase allergy.
    Does a few Mt of isoprene result in any serious global climate change? This question should be answered first.
    Does the isoprene production increase allergy significantly? This question goes a bit the same way as pollen allergy. Should we eradicate all or most pollen emitting plants?

    Doing GM on trees only makes sense if there are mainly great advantages and very few to no negative effect of a particular GM. In this case I fail to see any significant advantages described.

    Proportion is so often or rather mostly forgotten in everything related to Climate Science. Like H2O is a seriously dangerous liquid, when the proportion of it is not taken into account.

  21. “…grow as well as trees that were producing isoprene. The discovery came as a surprise, given the protective role of isoprene in stressful climates, especially in the case of the Arizona plantation”

    What probably happened is that they weren’t stressed much in a 3-4 year trial. Remember, trees can easily live a hundred years, which shows just how short a trial this really was. But academics live by the ‘learned’ paper, or die of acute grant shortage. And anyway, research these days is all about proving something you decided first -learning something is a far distant side-effect. In those rare occasions that it happens.

    • Hive – Understand that hybrid cottonwoods are grown on a rather short rotation. We grew them for 6 years, so the test period would have been nearly 2/3 of a rotation, which would result in trees at least 45 feet tall and 4-5″ DBH. While I’m also concerned about potential loss of plant defense, the test period was fairly robust for this species complex and growing regime.

  22. Trees would not emit isoprenes unless there was a genetic advantage – for the trees.

    Consider vaccination. If 90% of a population is vaccinated, the remaining 10% that is not vaccinated is still protected by the reduced transmission of the vacinnated 90%.

    Isoprenes could do something similar. The modified trees are being protected by the unmodified trees. As a result the researchers did not observe the modification to be harmful.

  23. Now if they will just genetically modify climate activists to have higher IQ’s, the entire problem is solved. (OK, I am assuming that a higher IQ would allow them to understand that the climate issue is not settled nor is it catastrophic…it might be they have to lower their genetically predisposed panic attack levels as well)

    As others have pointed out, there is a REASON why organisms evolve into producing certain chemicals, proteins, or whatever. If it requires energy, then there is a benefit or it would have been removed. We need to understand that reason before releasing this genetically changed organism into the wild (I don’t know about you, but my back yard is pretty wild).

    • Robert – Not worry. The time and expense to take a transgenic variety to fully deregulated status (which would be required for you to even think about growing it in your backyard….) is frequently 10 years+ and 10’s of millions of dollars. Not for the faint of heart, or without a big checkbook.

      Oh yeah, and then there is the public relations aspect. Big Ag has more or less gotten over this hump, but it seems those involved in forestry are in need of a spine transplant. That said, we are on the cusp of full deregulation for transgenic American chestnut, resistant to chestnut blight. This will be HUGE.

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