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BC Firm Leads Way In Seedling Genetics

Anticipating a soaring world demand for seedlings - 25 billion by 2025 - a Vancouver firm is working hard to perfect a better product.

By Robert D. Forrest
Copyright 1997. Contact publisher for permission to use.

Greater yields from reforestation efforts, increased survival rates for seedlings and the reintroduction of species such as the Sitka spruce - those are some of the things Silvagen Inc., a Vancouver company producing genetically enhanced seedlings for use in reforestation, would like to see grow out of its efforts.

A wholly owned subsidiary of British Columbia Research Inc. (BCRI) of Vancouver, Silvagen has become a world leader in this technology.

What the company doesn't do, as president and CEO Dr. Ben Sutton is quick to point out, is genetically alter seedlings.

"We're not actually genetically altering them," says Sutton, also director of biotechnology at BCRI. "Our process allows us to take the best products from the tree breeding program and multiply them. It gives us the opportunity to take things which are not available in operational quantities and multiply them very rapidly. It allows us to make further selections but we're just selecting out the natural variations."

The method of propagation used by Silvagen is called somatic embryogenesis (SE) which is a new vegetative propagation technology that allows efficient and rapid multiplication of commercially valuable seedlings. Elite or highly desirable seeds are placed in a sterile growth medium where proliferating seed cells establish an embryogenic or embryo forming culture. The embryogenic cultures that result can be frozen for storage. They can also be transferred to another medium which allows the production of large numbers of plant embryos which are, according to Sutton, analogous to the original seed. In a nursery environment, dried embryos are germinated to produce somatic seedlings or emblings using the same methods as those used to produce conventional seedlings.

The traditional method of producing seed for germination requires about seven to 10 years to become productive and produces results that are random without specifically predictable characteristics. With the embryogenic process, selected family lines with predictable characteristics are ready in about a year, Sutton indicates.

This process produces embryos which are like the original embryo from the seed. "We multiply each individual embryo essentially indefinitely," says Sutton. "At the moment, we germinate them in containers in a controlled environment and then they go out to a nursery."

Sutton continues, "What we are developing next is a delivery system for direct seeding of the embryos in the nursery. Then, essentially, you are just seeding."

Silvagen's production capacity at present is about three million buds a year. Sutton indicates that cost is a major factor in determining production output. The improvements to the delivery system currently under development will give the company a tenfold increase in production capacity to 30 million buds.

"Obviously the costs are considerably higher than conventional seedling production," says Sutton, "but, where you have substantial improvements such as weevil resistance, there is a considerable increase in the value, as well."

Currently, Silvagen is working commercially with spruce. "We have the spruce from the BC Interior which is basically white spruce and also the Coast Sitka spruce. We are working at an early stage with Douglas fir and various pine species, both for Canada and overseas."

Silvagen's work with the Sitka spruce is particularly interesting in that their efforts will help to re-introduce the species into habitat which was previously lost to it. Because Sitka spruce on the mainland coast and parts of Vancouver Island was particularly susceptible to weevil attack, forest companies often replaced the species with insect-resistant western hemlock and western red cedar.

BCRI was successful in identifying weevil-resistant lines of Sitka spruce and Silvagen will be able to offer these lines for use in the next generation of reforestation on cutblocks which were former spruce habitats. These somatic seedlings will be used to reclaim lost Sitka spruce habitat and will out-produce the replacement species in terms of volume of wood produced on these sites.

A key factor in the success of Silvagen's seedling development program is the ability to produce seedlings that have a significant survival rate. According to Sutton, the emblings produced by Silvagen and BCRI are as successful as are traditionally produced seedlings.

"On the data we have which goes back to plantings carried out in 1991, survival is very similar to control seedlings. The growth rate is also similar to control seedlings from (the best) individual families. The seedling stock will be the same as those families in performance until such time as we start to select superior lines within families which we are beginning to identify with our interior spruce at this stage."

Seed selected for superior growth characteristics will improve wood volume by as much as 15 per cent.

Sutton indicates that they will never have fewer than 30 lines of seed available at one time and that the total base from which to draw will include 1,200 lines for a species like white spruce from the BC Interior.

"Silvagen has at the moment 11 full-time employees and three contract staff." All work out of the BCRI facilities on the University of British Columbia campus in Vancouver.

"There was not much sense in moving from this location at the moment because we have space and facilities to do what we need to do. Also, we're close to the R&D. The relationship between Silvagen and BCRI is that Silvagen is the commercialization company but it accesses BCRI R&D capabilities on a contractual basis."

Sutton believes that somatic seedling production has a great potential to supply superior seedlings for sites around the world.

"Everywhere there is a need to improve yield," he says. "As long as the technology is working and there is evidence for the customer to understand, I think it will expand rapidly, particularly in areas like the southeastern US.

"In BC, I think it is hard to know what level it will be used at. I would estimate it won't constitute more than 20 per cent of the planting program for white spruce from the BC Interior but may be a much higher percent for Sitka spruce where the planting program will depend on delivering weevil-resistant improvement."

Sutton predicts the potential market will grow quickly to $10 million by the year 2000 and to $20 million by 2010. He suggests that the demand for seedlings will grow to 25 billion by the year 2025.

Will the company license out this budding technology?

"No," says Sutton, "we're more interested in being a producer." n

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