Trees are being genetically altered to grow faster, yield better wood and even detect biological attacks. Proponents of genetically engineered trees say biotechnology can help reverse deforestation while satisfying demand for wood and paper products. For example, Australian eucalyptus trees have been altered to withstand freezing temperatures, and loblolly pines have been created with less lignin, the substance that gives trees their rigidity. In 2003, the Pentagon even awarded Colorado State researchers $500,000 to develop pine trees that change color when exposed to biological or chemical attack.
However, critics argue that not enough is known about designer trees’ effect on their natural surroundings — they could spread their genes to natural trees or increase wildfire risk, among other drawbacks. Still, the USDA in June gave approval for ArborGen, a biotechnology company, to begin field trials for 250,000 trees in seven southern states.