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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Planting the Seed

Air Date: Week of May 21, 2004

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Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports on research that may eventually lead to customized tree stands.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Just ahead: with “fire season” upon us we take the pulse of the nation’s forests in year one of the Bush Administration’s Healthy Forest Initiative. First, this note on emerging science from Jennifer Chu.

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CHU: Picture row upon row of hardwood trees planted for the sole purpose of becoming furniture. Or trees perfect for paper production. These genetically-engineered “trees of the future” may not be that far off. Scientists have now figured out a way to quickly identify the genes that control specific traits in poplar trees.

To get the perfect flower color or the meatiest apple, growers mate parent plants that hold desirable traits. But there’s no guarantee the pairing will pay off. And because of the long life-span of trees, it could take decades to complete a test cycle.

But with the new approach scientists can see results in about a year. Researchers randomly inserted foreign pieces of DNA into the poplar genome. This infiltrator exactly mimics the expression pattern of a poplar gene, which in turn provides clues about that gene’s function.

For example, one scientist hopes to grow trees the way we grow houseplants – by taking a cutting, putting it in water, and having it take root. He’s identified 35 out of the poplar’s 36,000 genes that likely play a role in root formation. Next, he’ll try to transfer a houseplant’s genes into the poplar genome to see if he can get an entire poplar tree to take root in water.

That’s this week’s note on emerging science, I’m Jennifer Chu.

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CURWOOD: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and: Aveda - an Earth-conscious beauty company committed to preserving natural resources and finding more sustainable ways of doing business. Information available at Aveda dot com; The Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving Math and Science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12; The Annenberg Foundation; and, The Kellogg Foundation, helping people help themselves by investing in individuals, their families, and their communities. On the web at WKKF dot org. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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