FEDERAL WAY, Wash. — The little green, spiky balls of fluff and the warty, many-pronged branchlings on plastic dishes in the Weyerhaeuser Co. laboratory resemble little more than biological figments of some scientist's imagination.
Though Mother Nature regulates the form, they are that. But although born of imagination, they are also a start on the commercial forests of tomorrow.
The tissue cultures from Douglas fir, lined up row after row beneath purplish Grolux lamps in a controlled-atmosphere room, are part of the attempt by scientists to use advances in biotechnology to make better trees.
Super-productivity has been achieved in vegetables and grains, and scientists believe similar results can be obtained with trees. However, unlike crops produced in just months, it will take a great deal of time to tell what can be achieved with trees.
"It remains to be seen, but it seems feasible to double or triple the productivity of forest lands before reaching the biological limits," said Pat Trotter of Weyerhaeuser's technology center, south of Seattle. "When you're going to see that . . . I'm not going to predict."
Bob Campbell, a research geneticist with the U.S. Forest Service's Forest Sciences Laboratory in Corvallis, Ore., said extensive testing would be necessary to make sure the offspring of a biotechnology process would succeed.
"If you really change the genotype . . . we're talking 50 years or something like that," he said.
Trotter, who keeps track of biotechnology developments for Weyerhaeuser, the biggest wood products company in the country with 6 million acres in trees, said the company has already achieved good results through selective breeding.
Since the 1950s Weyerhaeuser has improved the output of its loblolly pine forests in the South and its Douglas fir forests in the Northwest by at least 25%, he said. A 50% gain will come in the next generation or two of trees, he said.
Other timber companies are making similar gains.
Besides productivity, such gains also raise the possibility of setting aside more publicly owned lands for wilderness and recreation uses, although scientists indicate they will happily leave such hot-potato questions up to politicians.
"That's going to be up to people other than biologists," said David Karnosky, professor of forestry at Michigan Technological University at Houghton on Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Although breeding has successfully provided faster-growing, higher-quality trees, many breakthroughs for tomorrow's trees are coming in laboratories.
Cloning, to produce trees that are exactly the same, is a snap for many hardwood trees that send sprouts out from cut stumps. But cloning is also being achieved in conifer species: softwoods such as pines and firs that do not have natural cloning abilities but are commercially valuable.
That is accomplished by tissue culture and by embryogenesis: making embryos out of masses of cells. Also, scientists are working on introducing genes into trees to perform specific functions.
An ideal result as envisioned by many scientists is forests of fast-growing, high-quality trees of different species that carry genes for specific purposes, including resistance to herbicides, diseases and insects.
A forest for saw logs might specify a pine or fir of exceptional strength and straightness. In the South, where insects in loblolly pine are a problem, an in-bred gene that wards off insects might be desired.
A plantation destined for use in paper might be a fast-growing poplar exceptionally light in color and with more cellulose and less lignin, a necessary element to hold the tree together, but difficult to remove.
Crown Zellerbach experimental plantations of cross-bred cottonwood, a variety of poplar, are producing trees for paper in what might be as little as a six-year rotation. There is a possibility farmlands will turn from annual crops to the cultivation of cottonwoods, for paper pulp and possibly fuels.
Scientists are also relishing the romance--albeit slow-moving--of letting the evolving science point to future uses and capabilities of wood from forests.
"We are in the very early stage of domestication of trees," said Reinhard Stettler, a geneticist in the College of Forest Resources at the University of Washington. " . . . There are bound to be all sorts of products and byproducts that we will put our finger on in later years."
Forests will become more and more important as renewable resources, said Don Durzan of the University of California, Davis, a leading scientist in trying to establish plantlets through embryogenesis.
Fibers, fuel, construction, feed for livestock and exploitation of medicinal values are all present and future uses of trees, he said, with other uses unknown--but almost assuredly to be found.
"I don't know what the products for this are going to be down the line," he said, noting that scientists have been working for 25 years on forestry at the test-tube level.