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100 Faces of Forestry
Steve Strauss

Steve Strauss

On the Ground Floor of Genetic Engineering in Trees

“Growing up in New York City and in Brooklyn, I had no natural interest in trees and forestry apart from the trees I noticed on my block,” says Steve Strauss, professor of Forest Science at Oregon State, “They always seemed to be sick, and people abused them regularly. I remember noticing their poor health, but I really wasn’t attuned to nature until I was about 14, doing some hiking with friends and traveling outside of New York City. These hills in upstate New York were beautiful, and I decided I wanted to do something for the environment.”

Following his experience enjoying the outdoors as a teenager, Strauss went off to study at Cornell, followed by graduate school at Yale and Berkeley. “It was at Yale that I decided I was interested in forestry,” he says, “I obtained my masters there in environmental studies, and following that, a PhD at Berkeley in what is now called ESPM, or Environmental Science, Policy and Management. At some point during that time, I learned that OSU was, and still is, a place that produces high quality and vast amounts of forestry science research. Around the time I finished my degree, a job opened up in the Department of Forest Science, and I’ve been here ever since.”

Strauss’s position at OSU has changed over the years. “When I first started here in 1985, biotechnology as a field was just beginning, he says. “That year is also the year that papers were published on the first genetically engineered plant, tobacco.”

Following that breakthrough, many began to realize the commercial potential of biotechnology and started work that involved the use of genetically modified crops. “We began our work in tree research by comparing the DNA of various trees and investigating their genetic histories,” says Strauss, “Once we had that foundation, our capabilities to do something practical grew and I moved my program in that direction and essentially stopped our studies into evolution.”

These days, Strauss, head of the Tree Biosafety and Genomics Research Cooperative (TBGRC) at OSU, spends much of his time overseeing studies into genetic modification of poplar. “We had the opportunity to also study Douglas-fir, but because of where the timber industry was headed, and because the species is much more amenable to genetic engineering, we chose to focus primarily on various species of poplar trees.”

His graduate student, Kathy VanWormer, is currently researching poplar in regards to transgenics, working to discover how to make the trees grow thicker trunks and limbs among other attributes that make them better suited to tree farming applications. “We want to understand how to put genes into trees in way so that they’re correctly expressed, that they don’t turn themselves off unexpectedly, and produce the trait intended” says Strauss.

One thing that has helped a lot, he notes, is the high quality of many of the students, post-docs, and technicians he has worked with. “It’s great looking at the ongoing research of Kathy VanWormer, a Master’s student,” he says. “Her modified poplars grew at an incredible rate as soon as they got into soil! There was a 50 percent increase in growth over the non-modified species. It takes her two days to measure all of her trees, and over the course of those two days, she can go back and look at the first ones she measured and they’re already 2 centimeters taller! A little bit of a technical problem for her research, but very exciting for all of us. With poplars you can see genetic effects with a speed and precision not possible with many other tree species.”

“I love thinking up, pursuing, and executing new ideas,” Strauss adds. “It’s just great to be able to follow your curiosity to do what you’re interested in and what you think could be important to industry and society. I think that’s the biggest positive of my job.”

Bio of Steve Strauss written by Bryan Bernart, Editorial Assistant, Forestry Communications Group, College of Forestry

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