Science 2.0 recently published an article stating that researchers have determined that the genome of conifers, like Christmas Trees, have remained the same for about 100 million years. This is remarkably stable, and suggests that the conifer pretty much got it right the first time around and hasn’t had to evolve to survive. However, there has been alot of recent conversation about genetically modifying coniferous trees… so that they’ll glow like fireflies.
A group of scientists from the University of Hertfordshire in the UK are looking into the production of GM Christmas Trees. They plan to use two different genes, luciferase and GFP to make trees glow. The genes would be introduced by infecting saplings with a virus carrying the genes and activated later on by soil containing luciferine.
So… why? Neuroscientist Katy Presland, one of the researchers working on the project, calls it “commercially viable” in an interview with McSweeney’s and cites that self-glowing Christmas trees would reduce fire hazards associated with Christmas lights, save people the hassle of buying and stringing lights and would, of course, be an interesting novelty. In theory, GM Christmas trees would go for about $380. In the same interview, Presland told McSweeney’s that researchers are considering the U.S. a prime target for marketing of the GM trees because consumers in the U.S. are less concerned about genetically modified organisms and more willing to spend the money.
In fact, I came across a study from 2001 that mentioned that Christmas tree farmers in the U.S. were looking into options for genetically modifying their crop back then, but for more practical reasons like resistance to insecticides like bacillus thuringiensis and glyphosate. Danish scientists are also currently working on genetically modifying Christmas trees to make the trees themselves resistant to pests.
Genetically modified Christmas trees would be a little different than GMO foods because, well, people don’t usually eat Christmas trees. However, there are still general health and environmental concerns regarding the production of GMO’s. Little is known about the future impact of GMO’s, but researchers suggest that it may affect human allergens and antibiotic resistance. Environmentally, GMO’s could affect biodiversity, have unknown affects on flora and fauna, threaten the natural integrity of plants and animals and there is the potential problem of unintentional transfer of transgenes through cross-pollination.
There are already environmental issues associated with the cultivation of plain old live Christmas trees. During their 8-year growing cycle they are often repeatedly treated with pesticides, which can contaminate groundwater. They are then typically used for a couple of weeks before being discarded, which is pretty darn wasteful in itself.
It seems to me that GMO Christmas trees (and Christmas trees in generally) are associated with an awful lot of problems and potential problems just so people can have something pretty to put their presents underneath.
One of the best solutions I’ve seen was the year that my grandparents decorated one of their potted plants and piled presents around it. Problem solved!