, Volume 1, Issue 1, pp 5-26

Genetic engineering of reproductive sterility in forest trees

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Containment of transgenes inserted into genetically engineered forest trees will probably be necessary before most commercial uses are possible. This is a consequence of (1) high rates of gene dispersal by pollen and seed, (2) proximity of engineered trees in plantations to natural or feral stands of interfertile species, and (3) potentially undesirable ecological effects if certain transgenes become widely dispersed. In addition to gene containment, engineering of complete or male sterility may stimulate faster wood production, reduce production of allergenic pollen, and facilitate hybrid breeding. We review the regulatory and ecological rationale for engineering sterility, potentially useful floral genes, strategies for creating sterility-causing transgenes, and problems peculiar to engineering sterility in forest trees. Each of the two primary options — ablating floral tissuesvia floral promoter-cytotoxin fusions, and disrupting expression of essential floral genes by various methods of gene suppression — has advantages and disadvantages. Because promoters from structural and enzymatic floral-specific genes often work well in heterologous species, ablation methods based on these genes probably will not require cloning of homologs from angiosperm trees. Methods that inhibit gene expression will require cloning of tree genes and may be more prone to epigenetic variability, but should allow assay of transgene efficacy in seedlings. Practical constraints include the requirement for vegetative propagation if complete sterility is engineered and the need for highly stable forms of sterility in long-lived trees. The latter may require suppression of more than one floral gene or employment of more than one genetic mechanism for sterility.