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Ecological impacts of trees with modified lignin

Halpin, Claire, Thain, Simon C., Tilston, Emma L., Guiney, Emma, Lapierre, Catherine, Hopkins, David W.
Tree genetics & genomes 2007 v.3 no.2 pp. 101-110
Populus, agronomic traits, biosynthesis, cinnamyl alcohol dehydrogenase, environmental impact, field experimentation, genetic engineering, lignin, pathogens, phytophagous insects, roots, soil microorganisms, tobacco, transgenes, transgenic plants, trees, England, France
Few experiments have yet been performed to explore the potential ecological impacts of genetic modification in long-lifespan species such as trees. In this paper, we review the available data on GM trees with modified lignin focussing on the results of the first long-term field trials of such trees. These trials evaluated poplars expressing antisense transgenes to reduce the expression of the lignin biosynthesis genes cinnamyl alcohol dehydrogenase (CAD) or caffeic acid/5-hydroxyferulic acid O-methyltransferase (COMT) with the aim of producing trees with improved pulping characteristics. The trees were grown for 4 years at two sites in France and England, and their ecological impacts and agronomic performance were assessed. Modifications to lignin in the poplars were maintained over the 4 years of the trial. The trees remained healthy throughout and growth was normal. The lignin modifications had no unexpected biological or ecological impacts. Interactions with leaf-feeding insects, microbial pathogens and soil organisms were unaltered although the short-term decomposition of transgenic roots was slightly enhanced. Investigation of the ecological impacts of the GM trees was curtailed by the early termination of the field trial when it was attacked and largely destroyed by anti-GM protestors. To supplement our work on the decomposition of GM plant materials with modified lignin, we have therefore turned to the study of transgenic tobacco lines where we can perform more comprehensive and controlled analyses of the biological and ecological effects of lignin-gene suppression.