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Executive summary

Nicholas Wheeler

The overall objective of the FAO work programme on forest biotechnology is to contribute to a global assessment of the discipline’s status and trends. The purpose of this document is to provide a summary of four FAO-sponsored reports on global forest biotechnology research activities and their applications. Individual reports are provided in Appendixes 2.1–2.4. Information compiled in these reports came from questionnaires, systematic searches of CAB Abstracts1 and other scientific databases, Internet searches of public and private websites, and personal communications. Though no doubt incomplete, the resulting data set of over
2 700 major biotechnology activities (from the last 10 years) and responses to questionnaires provides a comprehensive summary of worldwide activities, particularly those in the public domain.

The term biotechnology, as used here, is defined as “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use”2. As noted in FAO’s 2004 report on the state of the world’s food and agriculture (‘SOFA 2004’)3, “biotechnology is more than genetic engineering”. Indeed, a significant majority (81 percent) of all biotechnology activities in forestry over the last
10 years was not related to genetic modification. During that period, major forest biotechnology activities were reported for 142 genera in over 80 countries, with activities relatively evenly spread among major categories: genetic modification, 19 percent; characterizing genetic diversity, 26 percent; genomics, genetic maps and marker-assisted selection (MAS), 21 percent; and vegetative propagation or micropropagation, 34 percent. The majority of cited activities excluding genetic modification occurred in developed countries (71 percent of the total), though China (6 percent) and India (9 percent) were exceptionally well represented in developing countries and countries with economies in transition. Regionally, forest biotechnology activities excluding genetic modification were most numerous in Europe
(39 percent), Asia (24 percent) and North America (23 percent), and least numerous in Oceania (6 percent), South America (5 percent), Africa (3 percent) and the Near East (less than one percent). The majority of major biotechnology activity (64 percent) has been focused on only six genera (Pinus, Populus, Eucalyptus, Picea, Quercus and Acacia).

Worldwide, more than 210 field trials of genetically modified (GM) trees exist in
16 countries, but the great majority occurs in the United States. Field trials of GM trees are restricted largely to four genera (Populus, 51 percent; Pinus, 23 percent; Liquidambar,
11 percent; and Eucalyptus, 7 percent). Approximately half of all reported tree genetic modification activities are related to methods development (e.g. gene stability, gene expression) or basic biological questions (e.g. functional genomics, tissue culture). Of the remaining activities, herbicide tolerance (13 percent), biotic resistance (12 percent), wood chemistry (9 percent) and fertility issues (6 percent) dominate the most studied groups of traits. Only China has reported the commercial release of GM trees (ca 1.4 million plants on 300–500 ha in 2002). These releases followed two stages of field trials and required government regulatory approval.

Overall, genetic modification activities in forestry occur in at least 35 countries and Populus remains the most commonly studied tree genus (52 percent of activities).

Reported forestry biotechnology activities excluding genetic modification are still largely confined to the laboratory (>95 percent), though the application of micropropagation tools in field plantings is becoming more common. Notably, though significant effort has been made to characterize the genetic diversity of numerous tree species, few if any applications in forest tree genetic resource management or conservation have been cited in public-domain literature.

Large investments in tree genomics, MAS and genetic maps have been made over the last
5–10 years, particularly in North America (34 percent of activities) and Europe (43 percent). As noted in ‘SOFA 2004’, the most significant breakthroughs in biotechnology are coming from research into the structure of genomes and the genetic mechanisms underlying economically and adaptively important traits: “…genomics is providing information on the identity, location, impact and function of genes affecting such traits – knowledge that will increasingly drive the application of biotechnology in all agricultural sectors”. The science of proteomics is gaining some attention as well. The most notable accomplishment in forest genomics is the recent completion of a genome sequence for Populus. Identification of and partial sequences for nearly all the genes in Pinus are anticipated by many within 5 to 10 years. The discovery of alleles within candidate genes with measurable effects on quantitative traits such as cold tolerance is setting the stage for the application of association genetics, possibly within a decade. In this approach, MAS is directed towards the selection of superior alleles in candidate genes directly controlling phenotypic variation in traits of interest. Nevertheless, while expectations for the application of biotechnologies excluding genetic modification for tree breeding and selection remain high, there are virtually no publicly cited cases of commercial use except for micropropagation (rooted cutting technology) which is developed in at least 63 countries, and for over 80 genera (Pinus, Eucalyptus, Picea, Tectona, Acacia, Populus and Larix predominate). The use of somatic embryogenesis, though promising for clonal forestry, and at the advanced field test stage for some species including Pinus taeda, has to date provided only limited commercial applications.

Trends in forest biotechnology can be partitioned into four categories:

• Biotechnology excluding genetic modification, research: Emphasis appears to be on discovering and identifying the function of all the genes in a few model tree species
(in genera such as Populus, Eucalyptus, Pinus). Genes are fuelling association genetics studies. Investment largely derives from public sources in developed countries.

• Biotechnology excluding genetic modification, application: Micropropagation tools will likely dominate these biotechnology applications worldwide for many years, though simple use of markers for fingerprinting, paternity analysis and MAS will grow, rapidly for a few selected species, more slowly for others.

• Genetic modification, research: Genetic modification may be used to evaluate gene function in publicly funded programmes.

• Genetic modification, application: Numbers of publicly funded projects appear to be waning, while privately funded projects appear to be increasing, judging by field trials established in recent years. Some authors anticipate commercial releases in countries besides China within a decade.


2 FAO. 2001. Glossary of biotechnology for food and agriculture: a revised and augmented edition of the glossary of biotechnology and genetic engineering. FAO Research and Technology Paper No. 9. Rome.

3 FAO. 2004. The state of food and agriculture (SOFA) 2003-2004. Agricultural biotechnology: meeting the needs of the poor? FAO Agriculture Series No. 35. Rome.

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