Editor’s note: BioWatch is a regular feature on Fridays in Local Tech Wire.Dr. Robert Kellison says the Forest Biotechnology Institute at the NC Biotechnology Center has already received funding in an undisclosed amount for some of its efforts from corporate sources.

Kellison, who has 35 years of academic and industry experience in industrial forestry, took over the helm of the Institute as acting director in April. It’s previous director, Edward J. Makowski left the job earlier this year citing doubts about where it would get funding.

Kellison, on the other hand, says he’s “positive” the institute will find a variety of funding sources. He says the Institute has already received funding from corporate sources in the Paper Mill industry, which is heavily dependent upon trees. “We’re on the trail for more,” he adds.

The former professor of forestry at NC State University says the institute is also putting together a pitch for funding from foundations. “This topic has never really been proposed to the foundations in a way that appeals to their social concerns, but this has a social aspect to it,” he says.

The institute was created by the state-funded biotech center last year upon the recommendation of an advisory committee that studied how biotechnology could enhance forestry. The Institute’s mission is to work for social, ecological and economic benefits from appropriate uses of biotechnology.

Scientists writing in “Trends in Biotechnology,” say, “Wood is almost as important to humanity as food.” If anything, it is particularly important as an issue in North Carolina.

The state has a large forestry industry with a $13 billion payroll. It has the second largest Christmas tree industry in the nation. NCSU boasts several of the leading forest biotechnology experts in the world. But the potential benefits from forest biotechnology are internationally important.

Cleaning the air and soil

“It’s more than just growing more trees,” Kellison explains. He cites the following potential benefits:

  • Forest biotechnology can engineer trees that suck more carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas and cause of global warming – out of the atmosphere.
  • Forest biotechnology can engineer trees to leech more pollutants out of the soil.
  • It can engineer trees more tolerant to cold, chemicals, and pests, potentially aiding North Carolina’s $100 million Christmas tree industry which suffered a major freeze this year.
  • It can help bring back heritage trees such as the American Chestnut.
  • It can develop technology to create petroleum products from trees.
  • It can create plantations of engineered trees that provide for human needs so that we leave natural forests alone.

Kellison cautions, however, “That our doing intensive forestry here in the southeast won’t save the rain forests in Brazil or Indonesia.”

Trees are of immense biological, environmental and social concern internationally. Kellison says the forest biotechnology institute – the only organization of its kind anywhere – is already in discussions with several foreign nations, “though we’re not ready to name names yet.”

Return of the Chestnut

The institute is working with the American Chestnut foundation as part of its effort to bring back the once dominant tree species. “At one time it accounted for 30 percent of southern Appalachian forests,” Kellison says. “Now that niche has been filled, so we won’t see it return like that, certainly not in our lifetime. But we’ll bring back an acre here and an acre there.”

Another thing forest biotechnologists are working on is controlling the flowering cycle of trees, Kellison says. “Some trees take 10 or 20 years before they even begin to flower,” he says. Biotech could shorten that regeneration cycle and speed the growth of individual trees. Controlling flowering is also a way to prevent bioengineered trees from getting loose in the natural environment and causing unwanted effects, he says.

To illustrate the wide applicability of forest biotechnology to human concerns, Kellison points out that the science could make it possible to use certain trees in urban setting that currently have flowering and fruiting habits that make them unsuitable for urban use. “People like the sweet gum, for instance,” he says, “but hate the sweet gum balls it drops six months of the year.”

One of the forest biotech institute’s aims is to promote education and working through the social and environmental concerns surrounding genetic engineering and other biotechnological advances. “We want to make sure nothing gets out that causes a problem five or 10 years in the future,” he says.

Forest Biotechnology Institute Web site: www.forestbiotech.org