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Forest of Robot Clones New Scientist 23 Aug 1997

SUPERTREES that grow faster, straighter and larger than their conventional counterparts, could soon revolutionise the timber industry-thanks to a helping hand from robots. The trees will become a common sight in Indonesia once an automated plant near Jakarta opens later this year. The plant will be able to handle 10 million seedlings a year. Tissue culture makes it possible to create plant clones with identical characteristics. But until now it has been too expensive for use in commercial forestry. Each group of cultured cells generates a cluster of shoots, which must be individually plucked and placed in a growth medium, where they turn into seedlings. "The main cost in tissue culture is the pair of hands that does the preparation," says Allan John of Forest Research, an agency of Britain's Forestry Commission. Monfori Nusantra, a joint venture between the agricultural chemicals giant Monsanto and ForBio, an Australian plant biotechnology company, has found a way to use robots for some of the work. To help automate the process, ForBio has s elected cultures that produce a single elongated shoot, which can be handled by a three-armed robot operating in a sterile Handiwork environment. The robots drastically cut the cost of what had been a labour-intensive technique. "This will have a big impact on forestry worldwide," says John. ForBio's robots will be able to produce 750 embryonic trees an hour. Operating around the clock with a single attendant, three of the robot assembly lines can generate millions of seedlings a year. The robot technology is coupled with a programme to develop better trees. Researchers in Indonesia and Australia seek out wild trees with superior features such as fast growth, denser wood or resistance to disease-and map their genomes. They then locate the genes for key traits and find markers that go with them. The markers allow the forestry researchers to identify which seedlings carry the required traits very early on, rather than waiting several decades for the tree to mature. The best seedlings can then form the basis of tissue cultures. Monfori claims that its elite teak, eucalyptus and acacia trees are more resistant to pests and disease than their conventional cousins, and that they mature much faster. Trials of its teak are being carried out at five plantations in Sumatra and Kalimantan. The trials indicate that farmers will be able to harvest trees in fewer than 20 years, half the time it takes for conventional teak. Monfori's elite seedlings will sell for between four and ten times the price of conventional seedlings. Monfori's research and production plant now being built near Jakarta is scheduled to start producing teak and eucalyptus seedlings in November. Acacia will be added next year, says Kartika Adiwilaga, the company's production manager. "The Indonesian government has a target of reforesting 250 000 hectares a year and it takes a thousand seedlings to reforest a hectare," says Lewi Pohar Cuaca, the company's market development manager. "It would not be possible for any individual company to meet that demand." Steve Usdin, Jakarta