Mini-trees could bring ‘next green revolution’

The next “green revolution” might be miniaturized … as in genetically modified, semi-dwarf trees.

With altered genes to encourage larger-than-usual root masses or sturdier trunks — as well as smaller overall size — such trees could offer better drought resistance, wood products from short-rotation forestry, sources for biomass energy and a way to absorb carbon from the atmosphere, according to researchers at Oregon State University (OSU).

Semi-dwarf trees could also be used to cover broad natural areas and help prevent the spread of other exotic, hybrid or transgenic species, the research team noted.

Other types of semi-dwarf plants have already delivered benefits like higher-yield wheat and rice, earlier-bearing (and easier-to-harvest) fruit trees and ornamental plantings that don’t require as much pruning around structures and power lines.

“Although against the current orthodoxy of forest tree breeding — where height growth is emphasized — semi-dwarfism might also have benefits for wood and biomass production,” the researchers write in a paper published in the journal Plant Physiology. “Such trees could be useful if they were less prone to wind-throw due to their shorter, stockier forms and expected greater allocation to roots. Reduced stature could also result in less bending and slanting of trunks in the face of wind and gravity on hillslopes, and thus reduce the extent of reaction wood formation, which degrades the performance and value of solid wood and pulp products.”

“Research now makes it clear that genetic modification of height growth is achievable,” said Steven Strauss, an OSU professor of forest genetics. “We understand the genes and hormones that control growth not only in crop plants, but also in trees. They are largely the same.”

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