Research on the potential environmental impact of genetically modified trees

The potential for integrating genetic engineering into traditional tree improvement stategies and one day using genetically modified trees (GMTs) has attracted considerable interest due to the possibility of increasing pest resistance and improving wood traits. However, despite the fact that those GMTs are only intended for use in regulated tree plantations, it still raises questions about the potential impact of such trees on forest ecosystems and forest management policy.

The CFS played a pioneering role in 1997 by initiating the first field trial GMTs in Canada using poplar, and we reiterated our leadership by initiating another trial in 2000 with transgenic spruce. These field trials with GMTs were unique in Canada and were terminated in May 2007. Overall, this work led to several conferences and media presentations, and our work has become one of the best case studies of conifer field trials. The long-term objective of this project was to assess transgene expression stability under natural conditions and to gain knowledge about the potential impact of GMTs on the environment. Several peer-reviewed articles concerning the potential environmental impact of GMTs such as conifers with pest resistance genes, were published in scientific journals. Another project was initiated in the summer of 2006 based on the use of genomics tools. A large collection of poplar lines with random gene insertion (activation tagging) are being tested at our Valcartier research station. Using this new approach, we will identify genes that influence the quality and quantity of biomass produced in poplar. This research adaptation to environmental changes (abiotic and biotic) and analysis of tree bioenergy properties.

With the recent development of new genomics tools, a new generation of GMTs with a reduced potential impact on the environment should emerge. The new GMTs will acquire domesticated traits (e.g. wood quality, pest resistance) not by traditional lateral transfer of single gene units, such as with the B.t. endotoxin, but through functional plant genes controlling complex traits. Considering that wewill mostly use plant genes to obtain new traits, these GMTs should most likely have less environmental impact. Moreover, the biological novelties of domesticated traits are unlikely to have an effect on adaptation or general ecological advantages.

Overall, it is important to provide research data pertaining to the potential impact of GMTs in order to alleviate social concerns about GMTs. This also allows Canadian representative participating in meetings about the Convention on Biological Diversity to provide scientific facts to better support decision making. Over the last decade, we have participated in several workshops organized by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and played a key role in providing feedback about the regulatory procedure for GMTs.

Project status

  • On-going

Team members