Gene editing could be the future of forestry

Distinguished professor Steven Strauss focuses his attention on genetic engineering and gene editing in poplar and eucalypt trees. He’s using genetic technology to make state-of-the-art modifications to a variety of traits, including flowering and productivity.

“We’re working at the DNA level directly,” Strauss says. “In typical breeding you cross and select families of plants to make seeds that are going to be more productive or superior in other ways. By intensive selection and crossing you can change a tree’s DNA considerably, but it’s an indirect effect. In contrast, in genetic engineering we must know the science surrounding the target traits first, not just which plants grow better. This knowledge allows us to modify them at the DNA level.”

Strauss is working with students, faculty and researchers on a new type of genetic technology known as gene editing, or CRISPR. It gives researchers the ability to specify precisely where a genetic change will be made—something that was essentially impossible before. Strauss says the technology is only a few years old and is an exciting step for biotechnology.

By using CRISPR and directing it at different kinds of genes, plants may become disease resistant, pest resistant and more productive.

One genetic change Strauss focuses on is the prevention of pollen and/or seed production.

“It can provide a level of containment, and confidence in containment, that is unprecedented. This should help with public acceptance and regulatory approval, and may improve tree productivity,” Strauss says.

Genetic engineering is used widely in the agriculture. Gene editing will likely be coming to agriculture and medicine in the near future. Strauss says that gene editing could be an important tool for forest tree breeding too, and plans to continue working in this area and exposing his students to the rapidly growing technology.

“It’s mind-blowing in its power,” Strauss says, “and the training students get using it in the lab will help them whether they plan to work in forestry, agriculture, medicine, conservation, or many other biological fields.”

Putting CLT through the fire

“There’s a dirty little secret about wood,” says TallWood Design Institute researcher Lech Muszynski. “It burns.”

Muszynski studies the fire resistance of cross-laminated timber. When discussing this topic, he often refers to a photo from the great San Francisco fire in 1906. In the photo, two melted steel beams lay across a wooden beam.

The beam burned, while the steel softened. But Muszynski says the old photo proves the difference between flammability and fire safety.

“Materials that do not burn may be less fire safe than wood that does burn, but keeps its load bearing capacity much better,” he says. “In this case, the steel lost its load bearing capacity, while the wood, which didn’t burn completely, retains its ability to bear a load and saves the space below from being crushed.”

Despite this evidence from the early 1900s and recent research conducted in Europe, the American public is still concerned about fire when it comes to wooden buildings, and American construction companies don’t have enough data to ensure tall wooden buildings are up to code. Muszynski hopes to provide this data and put minds at ease with his latest research project, which tests the fire resistance of cross-laminated timber floors and walls.

“The point of my project is not to generate new science, but to provide a large-scale demonstration of how cross-laminated timber panels react to fire,” Muszynski says.

When Muszynski says “large scale,” he means it. Many of the panels he tested in a large furnace at the Western Fire Center in Kelso, Washington were too large to be transported in one piece, and had to be assembled on site.

The samples went into the furnace completely unprotected with any kind of fire-proofing materials typically used in wooden construction. Thermocouples, which measure temperature, were attached to the panels to collect data while the panels were exposed to fire.

Muszynski said that each panel experienced similar, gradual and predictable charring rates: the surface of the panels darkened within two minutes, caught fire and eventually a layer of char formed on the surface of the wood.

“Every floor panel we tested survived two hours of fire exposure,” Muszynski says. “After two hours we cut it off and inspected the sample. Only one wall sample failed after 90 minutes, and that’s still pretty good.”

The next step of the project is evaluating the charred samples. For this, Muszynski employed two Oregon State undergraduates.

“At first he tried to talk me out of the job,” says senior forestry student Cassie Holloway. “We were starting in the middle of summer, and doing this kind of heavy manual labor in the heat is pretty difficult.”

But Holloway and her partner prevailed. They cut each sample into one-foot by one-foot samples and evaluated the char depth to ensure consistency with data from the thermocouples.

Holloway first heard about CLT in her junior seminar class and was immediately intrigued.

“Growing up, I was very interested in conservation and sustainability,” Hollway says. “I think it’s awesome that people are using renewable materials to build up instead of out. I was really excited to be able to work on this project.”

Once sampling is completed, Muszynski says he will work to create a map of the char depth of each sample. Next, he hopes to test the fire resistance of connections used in CLT construction.

“Our ultimate goal is to make the TallWood Design Institute the one-stop place for testing anything mass-timber including CLT and glulam and whatever comes next,” Muszynski says. “This must include fire testing.”

Drones aid forestry research

Bogdan Strimbu heads the Management, Algorithms and Remote Sensing Lab (MARS) at Oregon State. Most of his research involves sitting at a computer and pouring over data, but recently, he’s been able to fill a niche in his field with his beloved ‘birds,’ a nickname for his collection of drones.

“People love drones because they are fascinated by flying,” Strimbu says. “God didn’t make us with wings, but now we can fly as we want with a first-person view. We can see what the cameras see right away, like a bird. It’s a miracle.”

Right now, Strimbu has a few drone-based projects, but word about the ‘birds’ has leaked around campus, and now his lab is assisting other researchers who need to see things from another perspective. They’ve worked with the Department of Ecosystems and Society, the College of Engineering, and the University Research Forests.

“It’s refreshing when we have a drone flight,” says masters student Scott Heffernan. “I mostly work in front of my computers, so it’s nice to get outside.”

Heffernan’s own project uses radar data from the Sentinel-1 mission in Europe to model ambient canopy moisture on a stand level. The projects will eventually help managers make better decisions about how to manage for fire threats.

Ph.D. student Chu Qi’s thesis is extremely theoretical, as it is focused on applying computer vision and deep learning techniques in forest inventory and operations. Qi holds a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Oregon State University, but was lured to the College of Forestry by Strimbu and the promise of working with drones. He uses his mechanical experience to repair the flying machines after their inevitable accidents.

Using his skills in forestry appealed to him because of the pollution problem his home city in China faces. He believes he can reduce the cost of labor when it comes to measuring ‘difficult’ forest attributes, such as taper.

“If I’m successful at developing my algorithm, you will be able to fly a drone over a stand, and the computation of stem volume and diameter will only take a few minutes,” Qi says. “It will be much faster than LiDAR.”

Qi says the accessibility of drones is what appeals to him.

“A few years ago, this wasn’t popular,” he says. “Air companies could see things from the sky, but now, as a normal person, I can gather information from the sky easily and cheaply.”

Strimbu agrees.

“It’s a very good time to fly for research,” he says. “It’s also very easy because of new, relaxed regulations in 2016. The biggest challenge our lab faces is lack of resources. I don’t even tell my students how many requests I get to do other work for faculty because it’s too overwhelming.”

Strimbu’s lab will continue to do their best to keep up with demand and to feed the passion they have for flight.

“We want to help give everyone a different perspective,” Strimbu says. “Getting higher helps you look at things in a new way.”

Savannah Stanton

Savannah Stanton is just a junior, but she already has plans to graduate from Oregon State debt free and work to change the world.

“I’ve always wanted to do something for my community and for the world,” she says. “Through renewable materials, I have the opportunity to do that.”

The Newburg High School valedictorian chose to attend Oregon State after she was awarded an academic achievement scholarship, but she still attended classes simultaneously at Portland Community College to get her baccalaureate core classes out of the way and discover her passion. She found it in a class taught by Seri Robinson called “Are You Wearing Mold?”

“The class drew me into the world of renewable materials,” Stanton says. “In the class, we dove into the world of fungi and what could be done with it. It was fun to do a hands-on class like that. It really appealed to me.”

Stanton believes an interdisciplinary course of study will be the key to her future success. He focus within renewable materials is science and engineering. She’s taken business classes, math classes and she will also earn a minor in Spanish.

“Every time a new term starts, I get new ideas,” she says. “My business classes inspired me to think about owning my own business someday instead of working for someone else.”

But Stanton isn’t exactly sure what she wants to do yet. Instead, she’s excited about a world of possibilities at home in Oregon and around the world.

During the summer of 2016, Stanton interned at a wood mill in Chile.

“That was my first time working in a mill setting,” she says. “It helped me understand the traditional part of our industry as well as an idea of the current needs are and expanded who I know within the small world of renewable materials.”

Stanton says her entire experience in Chile was funded through scholarships from the College of Forestry.

Back at home, Stanton is also involved in the student chapter of the Society of American Foresters at Oregon State. SAF is a professional organization dedicated to education and scientific pursuit in the field of natural resources.

“I got involved in SAF because I think it’s important to know what other parts of the industry are up to and what their concern are for the future,” Stanton says. “If you’re able to understand what other components need to make the whole machine work, you won’t get bogged down as much.”

She says that as a new professional, she expects to depend on the timber industry for the renewable materials needed to produce wood products.

“Renewable materials has a lot to do with timber production at some point,” she says. “Right now renewable materials only make up about five percent of the market, but I think it’s important to keep that in mind as I work toward establishing my career.”

Kendall Conroy

Wood science graduate student Kendall Conroy is focused on sustainability. She says the issue has been a hot topic in the Pacific Northwest her whole life. Conroy grew up in Hillsboro in a family of Oregon State graduates. Attending Oregon State as an undergraduate was an easy decision, she says. Picking a specific area of focus, however, was a bit more difficult.

“Oregon State has so many great options that I felt OK about coming here, even with no idea of what I wanted to do,” Conroy says. “Initially, I was kind of interested in forestry, but I didn’t actually want to work outside. When I learned about the renewable materials program, and that I could kind of marry a forestry degree and a business degree, it seemed perfect.”

Conroy was awarded a scholarship from the Dean’s Fund for Excellence and Innovation and chose to major in renewable materials and later added a second major in sustainability to further explore her life-long interest in sustainability. She participated in the SEEDS (Strengthening Education and Employment for Diverse Students) program, which matches students with a mentor and gives them opportunities to participate in hands-on research as an undergraduate.

Conroy was matched with Professor Eric Hansen and worked on a project researching gender diversity within the forestry industry.

“I learned a lot through that research project,” Conroy says. “Within the wood science program we have quite a few female students, but when you look at the industry and when you do internships, there aren’t as many. Experiencing this during an internship I experienced made the study more real and relevant to me.”

During her undergraduate experience, Conroy participated in a short-term, faculty-lead study abroad experience in central Europe. During her time in Slovenia, Conroy connected with a researcher there, and returned the summer after graduating to complete a research-focused internship.

“I got to help out with a literature review for them and a few other ongoing projects,” Conroy said.

Conroy enjoyed Slovene culture, learning a bit of the difficult language and enjoy a different culture in an international environment.

“Everyone in Slovenia was so nice, and I really enjoyed being part of a research team there,” Conroy says. “It seemed like every other week someone would visit from another country, and I was able to travel to Austria and Hungary to attend conferences. It was an amazing experience.”

Encouraged by her professors, Conroy returned to Oregon State in the fall to begin working toward her master’s degree.

Her research will determine architects’ perception of wood products in terms of general knowledge and sustainability.

“From this we will be able to better understand material choice and potentially how we can get more information to the people making choices about implementing wood as a building material,” Conroy says.

Conroy says that after completing her graduate degree, she would like to work with architects and designers as a consultant on sustainability and material choice.

“When contractors want to build a green building and they want to use wood, I want to be the person who can show them the sustainability of the timber they’re using,” Conroy says. “We don’t have very advanced ways of explaining that right now, so it’s my goal to tell the story of the sustainability of wood in the built environment.”

Blair Ruffing

Growing up in Dallas, Texas didn’t afford senior natural resources student Blair Ruffing many opportunities to get outside. In high school, her mother took her on trips to the Mountain west of the U.S. and Canada, and while visiting snow-capped mountains and crystal clear streams, the potential to live, play and work outside became real to her.

“I didn’t apply to any colleges in Texas because I knew it was time to get out of the state. I ended up at Oregon State because of the top-ranked forestry program. As an added bonus, we have forests, mountains and the ocean practically in our back yard.”

Ruffing was drawn to natural resources and developed her own individualized specialty which she named soil resource economics.

“I got excited about soils while taking the required natural resources major’s introduction to the subject,” Ruffing says.

“The idea of soil just clicked with me,” Ruffing says. “It made me realize that everything starts in the ground. Without soil, we don’t have anything above ground, and we don’t have life.”

Because of her passion for soils and natural resources, Ruffing has become involved in student life at Oregon State. She works two jobs: one as a high ropes course technician at the Adventure Leadership Institute’s challenge course and another as a communications student worker at the OSU College of Forestry Research Forests. She participated in the women’s varsity rowing team during her first year at Oregon State and is the president of the Natural Resources Club.

“The club existed before I got here, but it wasn’t very active,” Ruffing explains. “We’re still trying to find our ground and decide where to focus our efforts, but I think it’s important to have a club that explores the broader subject of natural resources. I’m excited to see what it turns into.”

Ruffing also completed an internship abroad, in Ireland in 2016.

“I got to work on an organic farm at a Tibetan Buddhist Center,” Ruffing says. “It was the highlight of my college career so far, and probably the weirdest thing I’ve ever done.”

Ruffing says working on the organic farm helped her think about the way she can apply the principles she’s learned in the classroom so far.

“I want to use my soil science background and my experiences working in organic farming and combine them in a way to help with the food culture in our world,” Ruffing says.

After she graduates from Oregon State, Ruffing hopes to pursue graduate school in Ireland and serve in the Peace Corps.

“I’m not exactly sure what the future holds for me long-term,” Ruffing says, “but I know I want to do real on-the-ground work to make this world a better place.”

Zach Leslie

Zachary Leslie spent his 2017 fall term in Chile working with terrestrial LIDAR. It’s something he never imagined when he came to Oregon State to study engineering.

“I declared a major in forest engineering after a friend and I agreed to do it together.” Leslie explains. “We were going to do it together.”

Leslie’s friend changed majors shortly after making the deal, but for him, it stuck.

“The professors were what really made me love studying forest engineering,” Leslie says. “They’re genuinely nice people, and my teachers and classmates feel more like family and friends.”

As a junior, Leslie visited the College of Forestry’s international programs office to find out where he could travel and participate in an international internship in order to fulfil the required six-months of work experience for his degree.

“I’ve done little traveling throughout my life,” Leslie says. “And I really wanted to go out and see the world to experience different cultures and ideas. I wanted to work somewhere unique than a locally.”

Director of International Programs Michele Justice pointed him toward New Zealand. There, he spent three months working for a research institute in his 2017 summer term.

“Another student and I measured Douglas-fir progeny trials through a variety of characteristics.  The seeds came from Washington, Oregon, and California, so it was pretty neat to my state tree being used 6000 miles away,” Leslie says.

In New Zealand, he saw first-hand how different ecosystems impact growth rates of trees.

“New Zealand has a similar moisture content as the Northwest. However, they have moisture is spread throughout the year so the summers are not as harsh.  Therefore, plants have availability year round which results in faster growing rates and a shorter rotation,” Leslie explains.

His first international experience made Leslie hungry for more, and because of the connections Oregon State has with Chile through the College of Forestry’s Chile Initiative, Leslie had the opportunity to take part in research and gain more work experience at the Universidad Austral de Chile.

During this trip, Leslie experienced a bit more culture shock due to the language barriers, but working with exciting technology in his chosen field lessened the frustration.

LIDAR stands for light detection and ranging and is a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure ranges to the Earth. Leslie used terrestrial LIDAR to understand the volume of trees in Chilean forests.

Leslie isn’t sure what his future holds, but he’s interested in attending graduate school so he can delve into the uses of LIDAR and unmanned aircraft.

“We can hook thermal cameras to unmanned aircraft to find an extinguish fires and hot spots,” Leslie says. “I would like to learn and research more ways to protect and manage our forest sustainably and efficiently.”