RALEIGH, N.C. — Before forests grow up to be a large swath of trees, they start out in the smallest of ways.
"Every one of these shoots here will turn into a tree," said Jack Wang, with North Carolina State University’s forest biotechnology program.
At the university, there is a refrigerated forest in a special lab, where trees are genetically edited to make them more resilient.
"We try to ensure that we change the DNA in a beneficial manner,” said Rodolphe Barrangou, a distinguished professor at NC State University.
He is part of a team of scientists creating trees that are tailor-made for today's environmental challenges.
"Pest resistance, disease resistance, but also drought resistance, heat resistance," Barrangou said.
His research partner in this endeavor is Jack Wang.
"Forests are unique; unique in the sense that they live for a very long time," Wang said.
Yet, forests are now under increased threat. The biggest problem revolves around young trees that don't get a chance to grow up.
"The major challenges are the new stressors that are happening, so they are preventing young forests from establishing itself, from maturing,” Wang said. "And therefore, we need the new innovations, new technologies that will facilitate a tree's adaptation to new stresses so that they can continue to thrive."
In the lab, they start with this clump of tree cells.
"You're holding an entire forest in your hand," Barrangou said, of the cells inside a petri dish.
Gradually, those grow into shoots and eventually get even bigger. They are then placed in a nearby greenhouse.
"More recently, we have increased our ambition to sizable forests and trees," Barrangou said.
In there, they showed a visual example of how modifying one small part of a tree's genetics can make a big change.
In that case, it altered the color of the tree's bark.
However, they say their mission is much bigger.
"Our desire to optimize the tree genetic pool and make more sustainable forests is not new, but is just more relevant right now, arguably than it's ever been,” Barrangou said. “And the sense of urgency with which we do that, the sense of awareness of people involved in it, is heightened."