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June 13, 2010

Genetically modified eucalyptus trees ignite controversy

by Zahra Hirji

Eucalyptus trees are good for making paper. They are terrible for just about everything else – soil, insects, plants, and water.

A paper company teamed up with ArborGen, a biotechnology organization, to genetically modify the trees to withstand freezing temperatures. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has just approved ArborGen’s request to plant various test forests across seven southern states.

Environmentalists are up in arms about the decision.

Nicknamed “America’s Largest Weed," it comes as no surprise that communities are worried about introducing the eucalyptus into new environments, which include 300 acres of test sites in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas.

In the 1850s, eucalyptus trees were introduced to southern California. Over the course of a couple decades, the trees spread across the state. Currently 100 out of the 600 species of trees can be found in California.

Initially dubbed the “wonder tree,” the beautiful Australian trees eventually proved more hazardous than wonderful. Compared to the native trees, such as California oaks, the trees from down under support fewer insects, birds and other animals endemic to the United States. Worse, they create toxic conditions in the soil and their canopies block out sunlight for underlying plants. They hog water and yet easily catch fire, relying on fire to spread their seeds. This may be good for the dry Australian landscapes, but not for American cosmopolitan areas.

The looming question is just how different the genetically modified trees will be from natural eucalyptus.

Of course, while biologists are rummaging around in the organism's DNA, they may as well try and correct some of these "undesirable" traits, right? So they went ahead and tweaked genes that they hope will limit the trees' ability to spread seeds, and make them grow up less flammable and more water-efficient than the originals.

But there's only one way to find out whether all the modifications worked, or if ArborGen has created some kind of hideous Franken-tree: plant some trees and stand back.

Many critics are outraged with the decision to genetically modify eucalyptus in the first place. Donald Rockwood of the University of Florida, for example, has already successfully used natural breeding techniques to develop less-threatening trees with some of the benefits ArborGen is after.

Rockwood worries that the genetically modified trees may spread their resistance to cold to surrounding plants.

Despite such concerns, test plantings have been approved. For now, the communities surrounding the test sites can only wait and see what happens.

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