Bioengineering may save America’s forests

Photo: Katja Schulz/Flickr

Scientific American recently reported that U.S. forests are among the most vulnerable in the world to predators and disease, according to a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The report also explained that biotechnology has the potential to be a part of the solution in protecting forest trees against destructive pest and disease outbreaks — which are predicted to increase because of climate change and expanded global trade and travel — but considerable investment is needed to further basic understanding of tree genetics, the effectiveness of biotechnology in mitigating forest threats, and impacts on ecosystems.

The United States has about 100 million square miles of forests and scientists warn that  7% of these forests could lose at least 25% of their trees by 2027. One of these scientists, Jason Delborne–an assistant professor at North Carolina State University, stressed that more public funds are needed to expand tree breeding programs and the use of biotechnological tools such as genetic editing to help grow trees that can survive threats such as the chestnut blight and root rot, which have killed 4 billion American chestnut trees. Tree diseases can also move very quickly which also underscores the need for a coordinated public and private effort to administer biotech to help. Just recently scientists discovered that beech leaf disease is spreading much faster than originally thought through Ohio, Pennsylvania and 5 counties in Ontario Canada threatening the ecosystems that rely on beech trees for survival.

Why This Matters: In 2014, recreation on Forest Service lands contributed more than $10 billion to the U.S. economy. and this accounts for a fraction of what all forests contribute to our economy through various industries. Additionally, we still don’t know the role that anthropogenic climate change will play on helping tree pathogens spread so we must be prepared for an uncertain future to protect vulnerable trees. Bioengineering gets a bad reputation as being “unnatural” or inherently bad but this technology is anything but, and it could help us save our precious forests from a tragic fate.

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