Learning across boarders – In its monthly lecture series, the Department of Science and Technology - Biosafety Committee invited Dr. Stanley Hirsch, Chief Executive Officer of FuturaGene Ltd. to talk about the GM Trees Technology last 05 October 2021 via Zoom platform.
FuturaGene is a pioneer in plant genetic research and development for the global renewable plantation forestry market. FuturaGene’s key crop is eucalyptus and its most advanced technologies are for yield improvement and yield protection in sustainable industrial forestry.
Prior to joining FuturaGene, Dr. Hirsch served as general manager of two diagnostics development companies and a drug development company. Previously, he was also responsible for business development for a privately held group of healthcare companies, where he oversaw the structuring and managing of joint ventures, startup companies, technology licensing and new product acquisitions.
In his opening statement, Dr. Hirsch introduced FuturaGene and its core functions. He stated that FuturaGene is designed to develop plant biotechnology to improve global sustainability. This is driven by the fact that FuturaGene believes that wood demand will increase by three-fold by 2050 and can lead to severe deforestation which will ultimately add to the global cause of climate change.
Dr. Hirsch further detailed that FuturaGene’s operation revolves around their main crop which is eucalyptus which focused on these key platforms:
- Increase Yield
- Protect Yield
- Bioinformation and Genomics
- Improve Wood Quality
“If one can extract more from less, this is a major driver of sustainability”
Dr. Hirsch presented FuturaGene’s first product, GM eucalyptus H421. The H421 was developed to increase biomass accumulation and was approved for Commercial Use in Brazil in 2015. The technology enabled greater productivity of wood per planted area, at shorter time when compared to its conventional parent lineage. The higher growth characteristic is due to the expression of Cel1 gene of Arabidopsis thaliana, which codifies the 4-β-endoglucanase enzyme that acts in the cell elongation process during the plant development. The expression of this protein results into larger cell growth, consequently increasing the productivity in wood volume per production area.
This scientific innovation will lead to reduced pressure on natural resources, reduced CO2 emission due to reduced radius to mills and lower forest establishment and input cost. In the last 15 years, FuturaGene planted around 300,000 trees with zero negative environmental and health effect.
Under their Yield Protection platform, FuturaGene’s developed their Herbicide Tolerance Technology. A side-by-side comparison of the conventional trees and the herbicide tolerant eucalyptus trees was presented. The FuturaGene Herbicide Tolerance Technology showed improved soil conservation, more efficient herbicide usage, and improved job quality and workers’ safety.
Another major issue that Dr. Hirsch mentioned was the caterpillars’ infestation which can cause 30% reduction in annual yield and up to 10% reduction in full rotation yield. FuturaGene addressed the issue by spraying BT formulation. A seven-day video time lapse was presented showcasing that within seven days, the conventional eucalyptus was severely defoliated by caterpillars, while the modified eucalyptus trees sprayed with BT remain healthy.
Leafcutter ants is another problem of eucalyptus. These can destroy newly planted eucalyptus within 24hours. New control strategies under development by Futuragene are the use of pesticidal proteins/fungicides/repellents, RNAi Silencing of vital genes of the ant, and antenna receptors characterization for behavioral manipulations.
Bioinformatics and Genomics
To date, FuturaGene was able to register 100 genomes of eucalyptus parents and clones and 20 libraries of pathogens and pests. These are used for gene discovery and development of markers for marker-assisted breeding of eucalyptus.
One major success using this platform which Dr. Hirsch considered a milestone in Forestry Breeding is the use of identifying markers to select resistant clones against what they called Physiological Disturbance. This phenomenon, wherein the bark of eucalyptus trees become ruffled, leaves defoliate, then die after 2-3 years, occurs when the eucalyptus trees are planted in the same area for over 10-20 years. FuturaGene found a marker in which they can detect a eucalyptus tree that are resistant against this kind of phenomenon.
Wrapping up, Dr. Hirsch pointed out the two underlying principles of FuturaGene’s GM Tree Policy:
- A scientific and operational framework to ensure all projects provide solutions that enable not only the transformation of the economic values of forestry but also create social shared value and environmental renewal and resilience.
- A bioethical framework to ensure decisions shall be based on dialogue with stakeholders, on the principle of Shared Value and on an understanding of direct and indirect environmental impacts and dependencies.
In the end, all these scientific breakthroughs are meant to maintain balance between environment, development and sustainability. #