Oxford to get biotech trees

A Cary nonprofit will plant them in accordance with new guidelines it has developed to ease fears.

Staff WriterDecember 10, 2010 

The Triangle is the new testing ground for a major push to promote the responsible use of biotech trees.

The Institute of Forest Biotechnology, a Cary nonprofit, plans to plant genetically engineered trees next month in Oxford.

The trees will be the first grown under a just-released set of guidelines developed by the institute partly to ease any fear that the increasing interest in biotechnology trees could cause more harm than good. The institute was spun out of the N.C. Biotechnology Center, which provides financial support.

Biotech and forestry companies, paper manufacturers, scientists and others are seeking to develop trees that are more resistant to pests, disease and climate change.

"Biotechnology is a tool we can use to help preserve our forests," saidLori Knowles, a researcher at the University of Alberta who is on the board of the institute. "But like all tools, we need to be careful in how it's used."

The institute's principles call for assessing the risks and benefits of biotech trees, following established regulations, providing full disclosure to all stakeholders, protecting indigenous trees and other parameters.

The United States has a strict regulatory system for biotech trees, but some countries have no oversight at all, said institute president Adam Costanza. "The principles provide transparency and provide a way to understand what's being done with the trees and why," he said.

The institute will plant American Elm and American Chestnut trees that have been engineered to be resistant to Dutch Elm and Chestnut blight, at the Oxford campus of its partner, the Biofuels Center of North Carolina.

The trees were developed at the State University of New York at Syracuse and approved by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The institute worked for 2-1/2 years with a wide range of stakeholders to develop its principles, including corporations and "interest groups that categorically don't like biotechnology," Costanza said.

Its work was funded by $250,000 grants from the Biofuels Center, N.C. Biotech Center, MeadWestVaco Foundation and Weyerhaeuser Co. Foundation.

As science and technology continue to evolve, the institute will regularly revise its guidelines, Costanza said. The first revision is scheduled for 2012, and another one in 2015.

The institute was started by the N.C. Biotech Center 10 years ago and employs two people: Costanza and Susan McCord, executive director.

Being based in the Triangle is important because this region is one of the largest biotech research hubs in the country, Costanza said.

alan.wolf@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4572

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