Another approach is to introduce new genes into trees that already are of a sufficiently high quality. For example, foresters might find a tree that naturally has an ideal growth form but is susceptible to pathogens. Another tree might have pathogen resistance but doesn't grow as well. Conventional plant breeders would cross these trees together, eventually creating offspring that combine ideal traits of both parents.
This conventional approach might work well in crop plants like corn, which mature and reproduce over a few months, but hardwood trees can take decades to reach reproductive maturity. Another problem with conventional breeding is that—even if both parent plants are ideal—there's no guarantee that the next generation will exhibit the same traits.
To get around the hurdles of conventional breeding, HTIRC researchers are pinpointing genes of interest and inserting them into trees that lack them. "We're speeding up the breeding process," says Keith Woeste, HTIRC tree molecular biologist, who likens the process to outmoded audio technology of splicing new material onto cassette tapes. "This doesn't change the fundamental nature of the organism. If you think of the tree's genetic makeup like a music cassette tape, we're just adding to the playlist. We're giving the tree a song it didn't have."
Quality and quantity
These efforts at improving tree quality fit well under the broad umbrella of sustainable forestry, a model that recognizes the need for forest management and forest protection to coexist, says Dan Ernst, assistant state forester with the IDNR forestry division.
"All the communities in heavily wooded areas struggle to find the right balance between preserving the natural amenities forests provide and managing those forests for timber production," he says. Planting trees with faster growth rates and other favorable characteristics on lands set aside for timber production may be a way to ease pressure on some of Indiana's forests.
"Forests provide many products and benefits not available from any other land source," Ernst says. "Healthy forests are vital to the well-being of Indiana, and this research to improve our hardwood trees will ensure their vitality for the future."
Indiana Hardwood Lumberman's Association