Here come the super trees: Chile's Genfor bets that genetically modified pines can boost Latin American forestry's bottom line. (Biotech).
The idea follows what biotech firms already have done around the world with corn, potatoes and soybeans. Using Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, a naturally occurring soil bacterium that kills pests if inserted into growing plants, researchers at Genfor in Chile's rainy southern forests say they are near to producing a commercially viable Bt tree.
Genfor believes the tree will withstand the European shoot-tip moth, a pest endemic to Chilean forests. The moth burrows into the seedlings of Radiata pine, a tree type that makes up 80% of the country's forest plantations. The moth's larvae cause the main stem of the sapling to break, leaving timber companies with a stunted bush instead of a healthy tree. The shoot-tip moth ruins about 30% of the harvest when it goes untreated, and 10% even with treatment, according to Chile's National Forestry Corp. Chile's foresters currently spend US$3 million annually to control the moths through the release of wasps that prey on the larvae.
Genfor says it has successfully implanted seedlings with the Bt protein, which kills moth larvae before they can do damage. The company predicts that its insect-resistant pine will be ready for the market in 2008.
"My hunch is that the Chileans will be the first to market a transgenic tree," says David Duncan, former head of global forestry at Monsanto. "They have the tightest focus of anyone and, just as important, they have a government relationship and infrastructure that will be most conducive to supporting a commercial deployment of such a tree."
The moth was the impetus that led to Genfor's creation. In 1997, Biogenetics, a joint venture of U.S. biotechnology company Interlink and Chilean technology think tank Fundacion Chile, began looking for ways to address the problem. Canadian biotech company Gellfor entered the picture when Biogenetics approached it about acquiring an elite cloning technology called somatic embriogenesis. Instead of a purchase, a new joint venture was formed: Genfor, Latin America's first and--so far--only biotechnology company dedicated solely to forestry.
Fast forward. During the cloning process, Genfor harvests immature seeds then generates tissue cultures from them, creating the source of an infinite number of future plants. The tissue cultures are then frozen, allowing researchers to test the material and return for the most valuable specimens, an important factor in tree research, where testing times are long because of slow growth rates.
"Trees begin producing mature seeds only after seven or eight years, and even then they produce a limited amount," says Mike Moynihan, Genfor's research vice president. "With this technology, I can produce millions of plants from a single seed and without the wait." Moynihan figures his 40-year research cycle has sped up to 10 years, thanks to cloning. He also projects a savings of $200 per hectare--about $66 million a year to Chile's forestry business--based on boosted productivity and improved seedling quality.
Beyond the possibility of genetic modification that this process provides, somatic embriogenesis speeds up non-transgenic improvements methods, such as selection and later multiplication of the finest plants. The cloning technology, paired with the superior genetic material, is Genfor's insurance policy against the long years required to develop a transgenic tree. "Commercial deployment of any of our transgenic plants is at least six years away, so as a company we need to develop a money-making product in the meanwhile," says Genfor's head of operations, Juan Carlos Carmona. "That product is elite clones produced by somatic embriogenesis."
In its first step towards that strategy, Genfor has imported the finest genetically improved trees from New Zealand, Chile's main competitor in the production of Radiata pine. Genfor has also established research agreements with Chilean forestry industry giants Arauco and Mininco, the companies that provide Genfor with their top specimens. Genfor supplies the technology to improve them and earns the right to market the results of the research.
Genfor intends to begin marketing the clones in 2005. but are Chilean foresters ready to pay more for super seedlings? Major forestry companies, which are better informed consumers, will buy in, says Victor Sierra, head of tree improvement and biotechnology for Mininco. Small property owners, those planting 200 hectares a year, won't pay a premium, Sierra says, because they "[don't] yet have an understanding that the new product will bring a bigger return."
Pulp fiction? Even more significant than Genfor's insect resistance project are its joint efforts with Cellfor to raise the level of cellulose and modify lignin in Radiata and Loblolly pine, key traits to Chile's enormous cellulose pulp production. Lignin is an element that must be removed to make paper; its removal is the most expensive and environmentally damaging stage of pulp production because of the massive amounts of chemicals used, U.S. pulp producers alone spend $24 billion annually on that process.
The joint research in Cellfor's Canadian lab achieved a 20% cellulose increase in poplar and is now transferring that experience to the pine species. By 2003, concrete results are expected. Because Loblolly is planted extensively in Argentina and Brazil (as well as the southern United States), the project will be Genfor's entry into its larger target market of South America.
For now, though, simply conquering the shoot-tip moth in Chile "would he a great contribution," says Mininco's Sierra. "The level of technology in the Chilean industry is low, and we aren't competitive from the tech point of view with any of the countries that compete in the same market. Genfor is already changing that."
RELATED ARTICLE: LATIN AMERICA'S FITFUI HISTORY WITH TRANSGENIC TREES
Monsanto came to the forestry biotech party and then left early. In 1995, it produced a herbicide-resistant eucalyptus in Brazil. "We estimated that the modification would cut weed-control costs in half and would increase final yield by 10%," says David Duncan, the company's former head of global forestry. Monsanto ended its forestry program in 1999 after reaching the field trial stage, deciding instead to focus its efforts on food crops.
In 1998, Shell Oil developed a herbicide-resistant eucalyptus in Uruguay. Per a government agreement, the plants were burned after one year. Shell then dropped its biotech program for economic reasons, although public opinion was a factor. "It was a stage when there was an extremely bad reaction to the technology, and I think many companies were very wary at that point," says Stuart Christie, Shell's forestry technology manager for South America.
Brazil's Aracruz wants to alter eucalyptus to increase pulp. Commercial cultivation of genetically modified plants is illegal in Brazil, although Aracruz's tree improvement manager, Fernando Bertolucci, is optimistic. "We believe that time is on our side in this case. We're not talking about next year, we're talking about six to eight years down the road," he says." We expect that by then people will be more open to this new technology."
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|Date:||May 1, 2002|
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