Haunted Woods

Eucalyptus is an utilitarian tree, so it’s no surprise that several organizations are interested in genetically engineering it. Indeed, its genome sequence is slated for release, which should facilitate a GE market for the species. One company in particular – ArborGen (they have a very interesting mission statement) – is using genetic engineering, cloning and classic hybridization techniques to make a cold tolerant variety. ArborGen’s grove of 355 hybrids is located in southern Alabama. While a cold tolerant genotype would enable harvest of the tree across North America, this project has been met with particular public resistance, given the species’ invasive abilities.

There may be another reason for the public to resist ArborGen’s new project: Cryptococcus gattii.   Known to associate with eucalyptus, C. gattii is a yeast-like fungus that can infect and kill mammals, including humans, that inhale its spores. Recently, a rare C. gattii genotype was the subject of an outbreak in British Columbia. Scientists and environmentalists are concerned that standing groves of eucalyptus that may be inncoulated with C. gattii could result in a subsequent health hazard for anyone living nearby. This particular risk, it should be noted, is independent of genetic engineering, but rather results from increased reliance on Eucalyptus as an industrial wood (remember, it’s not native to North America). The concerned parties have raised the issue with the US Deptarment of Agriculture and the EPA, so hopefully Cryptococcus ecologists will be afforded the opportunity to determine if the pathogen lives in ArborGen’s grove.

Final note: a special thanks to Kabir Peay, a fungal ecologist, who brought this to my attention.

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