Genetics and the Eucalyptus tree

I've got a story below that's off of the Reuters' science wire. It sparked a few thoughts in me about science and genetics and nature.

According to this news item, there's a big push starting to determine the genetics of the Eucalyptus tree. The stated benefits include developing trees that respond better to stressors like salt and aridity as well as improved hardness and density of the wood itself. However they also stress that they aren't going to make any genetic changes to the tree, just catalog the genes.

My question is how are you going to reap those benefits without changing the tree? LOL Of course you can't.

My point here is that many people are concerned when they hear that an organism is having it's genotype changed yet that's what we've been doing for thousands of years. Dogs used to be wolves. Not anymore. The list of genetically modified critters and plants is long and very advantageous to mankind. We've just been doing it by incest instead of in the lab. (I mention incest because animal husbandry usually involves breeding close relatives together to emphasize desired traits--morality be damned!)

Here's a related thought, generally when we say we're improving an animal or plant, what we really mean is that we're making the organism better for our own uses. Corn, for example, is a far cry from the ancient Teosinte plant (seen in the picture on the left (far left and top middle)). The original plant, native to Central America, would not be able to live for long wild. It requires too much fertilizer and human intervention to manage on its own. That situation is true for most domesticated species. My concern is that if we start "improving on" wild species, they also might find themselves at a disadvantage in their natural environment.

I suspect the only eucalyptus trees that would be seriously bred for change would be ones in nurseries, but the question remains, just how far can we go with natural species before our changes drift out into wild populations? Dogs certainly breed with wild animals--and embarrassingly enough, the occasional human leg. So do pigs--not the human leg thing--and many other domesticated animals as well. Something to think about...

Scientists up a gum tree over Eucalyptus origins

Reuters Newswire: Wed Jul 4, 2:50 AM ET

Australian and international scientists have launched a search for the genetic secrets of the humble Eucalyptus tree, which is native to Australia and highly prized as a source of fiber for producing paper.

The Australian government-backed Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) said on Wednesday that an international effort had begun to decode the Eucalyptus genome.

"We are identifying the trees that have superior genes that influence the way wood is developed," CSIRO scientist Simon Southerton said.

"Qualities like wood stiffness, density, pulp yield, responsiveness to stresses such as salt and drought and overall growth rates will be linked with particular genes, making future breeding programs more efficient," he said.

The scientific effort will not involve genetic modification, involves two dozen institutions worldwide. It is led by Alexander Myburg of the University of Pretoria in South Africa, with the support of the United States Department of Energy.

Australian scientists, in conjunction with counterparts in New Zealand, will be among the first to collaborate on the project, CSIRO said.

The project would have long-term benefits for both the Australian plantation sector and the conservation of native forests, Southerton said.

The Eucalyptus tree is Australia's contribution to the world's forest industries and virtually all eucalypts are endemic to Australia.

With over 700 different species, eucalypts include some of the fastest growing woody plants in the world. Covering about 18 million hectares (45 million acres) in 90 countries, they are one of the most widely used plantation forest trees, CSIRO said.

More than 130 scientists from 18 countries are taking party in the program.
--end story--

Should we meddle with a plant or animal's genes for our own food production? How about for our pets, ornamental plants maybe, or even reintroduction to the wild of animals that are now extinct. So, what do you think?

Of course at this stage in the game, we can't survive without the hyper-productive altered species that we've adapted for our own use, so this is a question of ethics only.


kenju said…
I have kind of a love=hate relationship with this kind of scienctific exploration. One side of me says if we weren't meant to do it, we wouldn't be able to. The other side says it is only a very small step from altering trees and plants - to animals and then humans. I think a scientist who wants to do it can justify the means to the end, and make it sound plausible. I worry where it will lead.
shoeaddict said…
I agree with kenju. A bit worrisome.

Wanted to tell you that I'm sooo jealous that you've met J. Evanovich!! I just adore those Stephanie Plum books. I've laughed out loud, in public, on more than one occasion because of Grandma Mazur or Lula!
SassyAssy said…
I love the smell of Eucalyptus trees! I second shoeaddict in my envy of you meeting Janet. Those Stephanie Plum books really crack me up...and I have you to thank for getting me hooked on them.
Bob-kat said…
I'm with you on this one. I often smile when people get worked up about genetically modified this and that. As you point out, we've been doing it for centuries anyway. I think the problem comes in how we manage these in the environment, not in the existance per se of the genetically modified article.

I see you've been decorating here again :)I like it but I miss the bug!
McIrish Annie said…
WoWW, I read your whole posting and only got about 1/2 of it. But I'm just a lowly quilter.. I generally feel that we should leave well enough alone. It makes me nervous when man starts poking around too much.. ha!

btw michelle sent me. great pet!
Into the Light said…
I DON'T like the new header at all! Just wanted to let you know.

I don't have the energy to deal with the content of this post though... you may never know what I think about it.
colleen said…
Where will it end? The worst thing to me is the seeds Monsanto has developed that can't be saved and replanted as if they want control of the world's ability to grow food.

I wonder what Michele thinks?
PI said…
Then there's the zebra and the horse - mating I mean. I thought eucalips were really strong and hardy. I planted one some years ago and it has just got lost in the undergrowth.
Speaking from one who knows nothing, I often wonder why Australia has so mane eucalips with all the fire hazards?
Michele says hi!

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