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100 Faces of Forestry
Kathy VanWormer

Kathy VanWormer

Cisgenics in Forestry: A Future for Tree Architecture


Kathy VanWormer, graduate student working with Professor Steve Strauss (Forest Science), knew from a young age that she wanted to be a scientist when she grew up. She was also sure that she wanted to stay in the Pacific Northwest when she attended college. “There are very few choices for 4-year universities that specialize in science here in Oregon. There’s one choice, in fact!” VanWormer jokes. But it’s clear that she came to OSU because it was a good fit for her. “I’m close with my family who live in the Portland and Salem areas, and I came here with my twin sister,” she says. “I found a fantastic education here, so why would I need to go out of state? And I found plenty of time and space a room to grow just 100 miles away from my parents.”

After obtaining Bachelor’s degrees in both botany and chemistry, VanWormer came to the College of Forestry to do some summer work in Strauss’ lab. “I originally planned to have a career in plant genetics, and after doing some work in that area, I decided I liked it enough to obtain a Master’s in that subject, she says. “During my research, I got really interested in alternative energy and work on global warming topics and the energy crisis. After obtaining my PhD in Chemical Engineering, I’d really like to spend the rest of my career working to solve these problems.”

VanWormer’s current research project, funded by the Department of Energy, lies in cisgenics, a special segment in the larger field of plant transgenics. “Cisgenics uses genes from sexually compatible species, or even the same species of plants, to modify a plant,” VanWormer explains. “One problem with transgenics is the worry that the genes in those plants, which can come from outside the Plantae kingdom and include genetic material from bacteria, animals, or other sources, might incorporate into the gene pool of local populations and cause unintended effects. Here, the genes used are already sexually compatible, so the effects of gene flow wouldn’t be something impossible in nature.”

Cisgenics is similar to evolution, where a gene is duplicated and its function has the freedom to change a little bit; however, with cisgenics, researchers amplify an entire gene including its regulatory regions and then insert it into a plant. “Oftentimes, with crossbreeding, (if you want to breed a disease-resistance gene into your crop plant, for example) when you take a crop plant and a relative and cross them to create virus-resistance, you ruin the quality of the crop,” VanWormer says. “But with our research, you could find that one gene you would be breeding for and simply insert it into the crop plant without the hurting its fruit quality.”

Her specific work is in using cisgenics to modify poplar trees. “I’m taking hormone-related genes from one poplar tree in plants and placing them in another poplar tree and then measuring the resulting growth in those trees,” she explains. “The goal of my project is to modify the architecture so that they grow as efficiently as possible in whatever condition we want to grow them. Depending on the situation, could mean it has a fatter stem, or maybe shorter branches so that they can grow tightly packed in the space of a couple acres. What we’re trying to show is that you can affect plants a lot without using transgenics.”

In the future, VanWormer would like to take the knowledge she has gained here and apply it to other research areas. “The more research like mine is successful and published, the greater the chance that we’ll be able to get cisgenics regulated less than transgenics, which opens up a whole field of modifying plants to get them to grow better,” she explains.

VanWormer is particularly excited about tree research because relatively little has been done yet with tree breeding and the field has enormous potential. “We use wood for so many things, and if twice as much wood could be grown on the same amount of land, maybe that would allow us to cut down less native forest,” she says. Not only that, “Cisgenics could even help mitigate global warming, if we use what we know to get tree roots to grow bigger and more massive in order to pull CO2, a greenhouse gas, from the air and store that carbon underground.”

VanWormer really enjoys the opportunity to work with her lab group to solve problems and conduct research. “We work together to figure out how to get past all the hurdles we see in biotechnology research. They have all this experience and if you just talk to them you can learn so much.”

She hopes to someday use her knowledge to work on global warming issues in particular. “Our climate is changing, and I don’t want to someday raise kids in a place that’s suffering the aftereffects of humans adding too much CO2 to the air,” she says. “It’s important enough to me that I know I have to spend the rest of my career working to help solve this problem.”


Bio of Kathy VanWormer written by Bryan Bernart, Editorial Assistant, Forestry Communications Group, College of Forestry

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