The goal of this material is to support civil discourse and inform decisions about how to respond to current and potential forest health threats. The emphasis is on deciding if and how to intervene, with a focus on when genetic approaches to improving tree resistance might be appropriate to pursue. The roadmap might, for example, guide an analysis of research options for a public sector agency such as the US Forest Service, by a company considering the development and marketing of a transgenic resistant tree, or a certification or stewardship system deciding whether to endorse research or commercial deployment. Genetic options include conventional breeding and diverse biotechnologies, including genetic engineering. The threats to forest health of concern include biotic agents such as diseases and insects, and abiotic stresses such as climate shifts. Both exotic and native biotic agents, and the effects of variation in climate, are germane. A summary flow chart presents the general logical approach to decision making, but because of the complexity of forest-stressor interactions, general incompleteness of scientific understanding, and variable social perspectives on when intervention is appropriate, it is presented as a “guide or roadmap.” Accompanying material provides added explanations and examples to help inform the use of the roadmap in practice. Information supporting this process will come from a variety of sources including agencies, researchers, and other informed stakeholders.
This material is organized to first consider the state of knowledge and capacity about the forest health threat and tree genetic tools, second to evaluate the desirability of various kinds of breeding research, and finally to evaluate, if the research is successful, the desirability of release in wild or planted forests. This material scrutinizes transgenic tree research and release in depth.
Watch the FHI introductory video
Characterizing the threat or creating a “dossier” of the threat includes documenting that a specific tree species is under threat, evaluating the level of threat, and delineating possible mitigation options. Viable non-genetic options, such as silvicultural practices or chemical controls, identified as part of Phase 1 should be pursued moving the user outside of the scope of the Forest Health Roadmap. If genetic options are to be considered the user of the roadmap moves to Phase 2 – Research.
ID Forest Health ThreatDocument that a tree species is under threat. Some information sources include:
Note: A non-native pest is defined as any species not native to the ecosystem under consideration (Executive Order 13112)
Evaluate the Damaging Causal Agent/s and/or ConditionsEvaluation of threat level. Points to consider include:
Importance of the tree species to:
- If so does damage or death of individual trees occur rapidly or over a period of years?
- Spread by natural means (flight, wind) or largely assisted by human activities (transport in firewood or nursery stock)?
- Are significant populations of vulnerable species separated by distance and unsuitable habitat from the principal outbreak?
- Are programs in place (or likely to be implemented) that show promise for slowing the pest’s spread such as federal or state quarantines, voluntary industry practices, measures for sanitizing pathways of movement?
Delineate Mitigation OptionsNon Tree Genetic Options
Pest suppression efforts to consider include:
For all breeding options, consider technical feasibility, social interests, and
ecologically beneficial and adverse effects. Conduct research and re-evaluate all
of the above and their interactions as ecosystems and societies change over
time. Choose to continue, or discontinue additional research and move projects
to release options. If Research Phase determines biotech trees should be
pursued, move to Phase 3 – Pursue Biotech Tree Solutions.
Breeding StrategiesEvaluate Traditional Breeding Options
- Identify breeding experts and programs that work with this species or forest health threat
Transgenic technology status
Research & Development
If you want to learn the basics of biotech trees, this Forest Biotechnology Primer is the best place to start.Biotech Research
The biological science component of the Forest Health Initiative (FHI) supports core activities needed to promote the health and/or restoration of threatened forest tree species. The first target species, American chestnut, was almost lost from its former range by introduction of an exotic fungal pathogen that causes chestnut blight. Over the past fifty years, many public and private organizations, motivated by concerned citizens throughout the U.S., have tried to restore the American chestnut to its former status in the Eastern hardwood forest. These activities, usually involving selection and breeding or attempts to attenuate the pathogen, have not yet achieved success. FHI is building on these past efforts, introducing new biotechnology tools and knowledge not previously available, and serving as an integrated platform to accelerate species restoration.
American chestnut restoration presents enormous challenges. Conventional backcross breeding programs introduce blight resistance from related species, followed by crossing of hybrid offspring to recover resistant and nearly pure American chestnut trees. These programs require many years of effort for each breeding cycle. Similarly, reliable blight resistance screening requires many years for trees to reach appropriate size for inoculation and genetic screening.
How is FHI contributing? Transgenic technology is rapid in that it requires no breeding, and is precise in that the immediate product is a nearly pure American chestnut genome. However, there are still knowledge gaps regarding the most appropriate transgenes to introduce that will improve resistance to chestnut blight. Advanced marker-informed breeding and selection may prove successful, but it is not known whether and how genome rearrangements between donor species and American chestnut may affect efficiency of backcross breeding. Additional knowledge gaps surround accurate rating of heritable blight resistance in very young seedlings. To fill these gaps, FHI is supporting the discovery of genes and their organization from blight resistant species and hybrids through genome sequencing and DNA marker development, thereby creating platforms for accelerated breeding strategies and for evaluating candidate transgenes. FHI is also supporting the development of early, accurate blight resistance screening protocols in vegetatively propagated material.
The activities of this biological research component of FHI is reinforced by parallel activities focused on social, environmental and policy aspects, in order to engage the broad communities demanding options for restoration of American chestnut.
Download the FHI Research Flowchart
Social & Ethical Considerations
Click on the blue links to download documents.
Goals of this working group are to develop broad social and environmental stakeholder understanding on how biotechnology may be used to preserve and restore forest health. Much like the broader FHI, the Social Environmental Group (SEG) has embarked on a three-pronged, parallel and fully coordinated (braided) approach to achieving its goal. The three Work Groups of the SEG were established as follows:
- Issues Work Group: addressing key questions, issues and concerns by stakeholders.
- Principles Work Group: indentifying and integrating principles for responsible deployment of biotechnology to address current and emerging forest health threats.
- Outreach & Communications Work Group: developing and executing a plan to solicit broad input and engage key stakeholders that result in broad stakeholder understanding and acceptance of the FHI. Watch the FHI introductory video
Click on the blue links to download documents.
The Policy group of the FHI investigates how to best navigate the regulatory processes in place in the U.S. that govern the use of a biotech tree that is by design intended to flower and propagate in the open forest. In this potential scenario a genetically engineered American chestnut would be regulated by three U.S. agencies:
- U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) regulates all genetically engineered organisms that could affect agriculture or the environment. All biotech trees are regulated by APHIS.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates uses of Plant-Incorporated Protectants (PIPs) for safe use in the environment. All biotech trees that are resistant to viruses are regulated by the EPA.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates all human food and animal feed additives. Genetically engineering a food product is considered to be a food additive to the FDA. All biotech trees that produce human food or animal feed are regulated by the FDA.
While this specific application of biotechnology is intended purely for environmental and societal benefit, it does not change the fact that these agencies are designed, and required, to respond to actionable items. In other words, agencies that regulate need some thing to regulate. However, there may be no actionable item (a biotech tree) for years. The Policy group’s task was to work within these systems to gather information that may help speed regulatory determinations.
The Policy group collaborated with the entire FHI and the three aforementioned agencies to develop the response plan for using advanced biotechnology as a tool for forest health.
Click on the blue links to download documents.
The goal of this document is to outline how to scientifically assess the ways and extent to which a transgenic tree (modified by genetic engineering methods) has impacts on the physical and biological environment. It includes examples of how assessments for transgenic trees might be done, and experiences from agricultural biotechnology. Assessments should consider expected direct and indirect impacts, as well as to search for unintended effects of transgenic modification. Important expressions to consider include effects on non-target organisms, soil nutrition and toxicity, and the ability of trees to compete and disperse. All assessments should include field-based comparisons to contemporary forestry practices, such as conventional breeding, planting, and harvesting, so that the relative magnitude of impacts can be determined.
Synthesis of American chestnut (Castanea dentata) biological, ecological, and genetic attributes with application to forest restoration
Biotech Tree Trials
Ms. Lori Knowles of the Health Law Institute in Alberta, Canada was commissioned to perform an intellectual property (IP) review on the potential use of certain genetic constructs in the biotech American chestnut. The goal of this review is to allow the FHI science teams to gain a better understanding of the direction research in the field is moving, who is conducting that research and where that research is being conducted. In addition, the IP study will identify parties who hold relevant intellectual property and identify opportunities for the creation of strategic relationships or negotiations with patent holders.
- Traditional breeding: purposeful sexual propagation of trees involves producing progeny of parents from different genetic populations, to create a desired phenotype.
- Clonal propagation: asexual propagation producing genetically identical trees using methods such as grafting, rooted cuttings, tissue culture, or somatic embryogenesis.
- Marker aided selection/breeding: with information about a tree’s genome, molecular markers can be used to locate specific genes in potential seedlings, at an embryonic stage. These landmarks in the genome give breeders the advantage of speed and accuracy in a breeding program.
- Interspecific hybridization/breeding: purposeful sexual propagation of trees between species.
- Transgenic research: genetic engineering is an advanced science in which DNA sequences encoding for very specific and desired traits are introduced into the plant's genome.