Have yourself a genetically modified little Christmas

Searching for the perfect Christmas tree can be a hassle, and even a tree that looks great on the lot can turn out to have weird branches, flat spots or gaps once it opens up. But someday soon, every Christmas tree may be perfect, thanks to science.

Around 40 million Christmas trees are harvested every year in the U.S. and Canada, most from Christmas tree farms. A small to medium tree farm will harvest 10,000 trees, and some of the multinational giants harvest up to a million trees annually on plantations from North Carolina to Nova Scotia.

(Christmas tree farms, by the way, are also oxygen farms. One acre of Christmas trees produces the daily oxygen requirement for 18 people. Since there are a million acres of Christmas trees being grown at any given time, every day Christmas trees produce enough oxygen for18 million people!)

Only one in every 10,000 Christmas trees is perfect. Most develop gaps or unsightly branches, so growers prune their trees every June from the age of three on, and cut off the bottom branches to give the trees “handles” long enough for tree stands.

That kind of labor may soon be a thing of the past, however. Many different research teams are attempting to clone perfect trees, instead of relying on Nature to produce them. For instance, a group at Michigan State University is working on cloning Douglas fir and Scotch pine. First, they search the Christmas tree farm for a specimen with a straight trunk (so it slips easily into the stand), the strength to hold lots of ornaments, thick needles and good needle retention, good color, branches that angle up at 45 degrees and a uniform conical shape. Right now, cloned trees are expensive, but once they can be mass-produced, the price should come down.

The next step is to genetically modify the trees to resist the fungal diseases and soil-dwelling insect larvae that plague them. A farm growing disease-and-insect-resistant clones could sell 95 percent of its crop, compared to just 60 to 70 percent today, and greatly reduce the use of pesticide. Trees could also be modified to keep their needles longer and grow faster, decreasing the time from planting to harvesting.

Evergreens have proven difficult to genetically engineer, but a Danish team led by Dr. Jens Find, working with the New Zealand Institute of Forest Research, is even now nursing 1,500 cloned and genetically engineered fir seedlings. If this test is successful, cloned and genetically engineered Christmas trees could be on sale within five years. (Dr. Find says he’s had no negative reaction from the forces fighting genetically modified foods: “After all, it’s not as if anyone ate Christmas trees.”)

As long as you’re engineering a better Christmas tree, why stop with disease and insect resistance? Five postgraduate students at the University of Hertfordshire, UK, don’t see any reason to. As their entry in a competition where students have to develop plans for a fictitious start-up biotechnology company, they proposed developing and marketing a self-illuminating Christmas tree.

Genetic engineers have already creating glowing mice, silk and potatoes, so the idea isn’t far-fetched. The tree, a Douglas spruce, would glow green in the dark and produce a noticeable light even during the day. It would have two genes from fluorescent jellyfish and fireflies added to it. The first produces a substance called green fluorescent protein (GFP), while the second produces an enzyme called luciferase.

The trees would be infected with a harmless bacterium carrying the two genes. That alone wouldn’t make the tree glow; to activate the luciferase and make the GFP glow, you’d first have to fertilize the tree with a chemical compound called luciferin, sold along with the tree.

Although the genes for green fluorescence are the most widely used by genetic engineers (they make it easy to tell if they’ve successfully introduced a gene into an organism), blue fluorescent proteins are also known, and recently a red fluorescent protein was found in a coral. Which means, in theory, you could create a Christmas tree that would grow its own multicolored lights.

Aat this point, nobody is actually trying to make such a tree. On the other hand, the students’ entry has advanced to the finals of the competition, so who knows? Maybe they’ll make their fictitious company a reality.

The students estimate that the initial trees would cost around £200. Nevertheless, said one, “I’m sure a lot of people would love them, especially the Americans.”

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/1999/12/have-yourself-a-genetically-modified-little-christmas/

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