Unravelling the genome of the black cottonwood tree is a step towards tinkering with it. And that, in the end, could lead to genetically modified forests.
The black cottonwood was given the honour of being first tree because it and its relatives are fast-growing and therefore important in forestry. For some people, though, they do not grow fast enough. As America’s Department of Energy, which sponsored and led the cottonwood genome project, puts it, the objective of the research was to provide insights that will lead to “faster growing trees, trees that produce more biomass for conversion to fuels, while also sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.” It might also lead to trees with “phytoremediation traits that can be used to clean up hazardous waste sites.”
It is also pretty sure to lead to a lot of environmental protest—hence, perhaps, the environmental emphasis of the energy department’s mission statement. Given the argument about genetically modified field-crops that has taken place in some parts of the world, genetically modified forests are likely to provoke an incandescent response. Soya, maize, cotton and the like were already heavily modified for human use before biotechnologists got their hands on them. One result is that they do not do very well in the big, bad, competitive world outside the farmer’s field. But trees, even the sorts favoured by foresters, are wild organisms. GM trees really might do well against their natural conspecifics.