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Genetics Offers New Biotechnology Tools

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CORVALLIS, Ore. -- U.S. forestry scientists say they've discovered the growth rate and other characteristics of trees can be changed through a type of genetic engineering.

The Oregon State University researchers said they have demonstrated for the first time that "cisgenics" -- a type of genetic engineering that is conceptually similar to traditional plant breeding -- might herald a new future for biotechnology.

Cisgenics uses genes from closely related species that usually are sexually compatible, the scientists said, adding if governments choose to regulate it similarly to conventional breeding, it might revolutionize not only forestry, but crop agriculture and other areas as well.

The researchers, led by Professor Steven Strauss, said they used cisgenic manipulation to affect the actions of gibberellic acid -- a plant hormone, in poplar trees -- to affect the growth rate, morphology and wood properties of seedling trees.

"Until now, most applications of biotechnology have been done with transgenics, in which you take genetic traits from one plant or animal and transfer them into an unrelated species," Strauss said. "By contrast, cisgenics uses whole genes from the same plant or a very closely related species. We may be able to improve on the slow and uncertain process of plant breeding with greater speed and certainty of effect." The research is reported in The Plant Biotechnology Journal.