Interview with Dr. Steve Strauss

Hosted by Dr. Swadhin Swain

Video and audio edited by Dr. Swadhin Swain


This transcript has been edited for clarity and readability. 

Swadhin Swain: Hello, thank you for joining us on another episode of The PlantGENE Podcast. I am Swadhin Swain, a volunteer at PlantGENE and a research fellow at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. My research is focused on plant hormone signaling and stem cell maintenance. The PlantGENE project centers around the enhancement of plant genetic engineering to ensure a sustainable supply of food, feed, and fiber. In each podcast episode, we welcome esteemed leaders from academia or industry to share their experiences and insights for the benefit of our listeners.

Today’s guest is Dr. Steven H. Strauss. Dr. Strauss is a Distinguished Professor of Forest Biotechnology in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University. He is Director of the GREAT TREES research cooperative, at Oregon State University. Dr. Strauss’s scientific career focused on improving methods for efficient genetic engineering and editing of trees used in plantation forestry and horticulture. He has published more than 200 scientific articles and obtained approximately 25 million dollars of competitive grant support from science agencies. He was recognized as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the year 2009, for his contribution in advancing of the science and policy regarding forest biotechnologies. 

Welcome Steve—thank you for joining me today.

Steve Strauss: Thank you very much for inviting me.

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SS: Q1: Could you please explain why should we care about forestry?


Yeah. Forestry is one of the largest sets of carbon sustainable industries on the planet, providing energy, pulp, and paper and, solid wood products, all over the world. Forestry plantations are regarded as a very good way to reduce pressure on native forests by producing a large amount of product in a very short time. So, I’m dedicated to trying to make forestry as efficient as possible for both environmental and economic reasons.


SS: Q2: How do you get interested in this forest technology?


I was a student in ecology intending to go on and become an ecosystem scientist when I was at Cornell doing my undergraduate. And over time, I became more interested in applications as compared to the basic science related to ecology. I was, introduced to genetics by some colleagues. I did a master’s at Yale University, and I got very interested in the practical problems of genetic improvement of trees. When I was a student, there was no biotechnology. No one had ever made a genetically modified plant or a tree. And when I got my first faculty position after getting my PhD, that was in 1995, the field of genetic engineering was just beginning. The first genetically engineered plant was in 1984 or 1985, about the time I graduated the first tree in 1987. 

And industries were starting up in the northwestern United States, where I work, devoted to biofuels production. And the Department of Energy was financing a great deal of research that the conventional forest industries are very interested in this as well. So, it seemed like there was great science to do with tremendous local application as well. So, I sort of moved into that area at the start of my career in about 1985.


SS: Q3: Your research focus on improving tissue culture and gene editing of trees. Could you please explain what is plant tissue culture and how it helps to improve genetic engineering?


Yeah, most genetic engineering, nearly all of it takes place in sterile cultures where the medium is produced to sort of suit the needs of a plant, often has hormones to help it grow and differentiate, produce roots. And producing those media is quite complicated. So that’s one thing. And then also layering on top of that, the interest in either inserting genes or editing them,

which also requires inserting the DNA into cells, poses great additional challenges.


The main way we do that is using agrobacterium, a very common, a natural plant genetic engineering. We should modify it for our purposes. But it’s a pathogen and our trees respond to pathogens by an extreme stress response, often turning black and necrotic. Trees have to survive—and, you know, many decades in the world under attack by many pathogens. And a key strategy is just to undergo programed cell death. They also do that often when we try to transform them or edit them. So, overcoming these natural barriers is another challenge. Then trees are very, very genetically diverse. They’re among the most diverse organisms on the planet earth, far more diverse than Homo sapiens, if you look at the DNA level. Every genotype and species behave quite differently. So, we need methods that is very broad and flexible. We really don’t have them yet. We need methods that really are very broad and flexible and, we really don’t have them yet. We’re just beginning to get them in the monocot maize and wheat and so forth, and don’t really have them in the dicot crops and not in our trees.


SS: Q4: In the recent PlantGENE annual meeting you mentioned developmental genes. What are dev genes and how can someone use them to improve plant transformation and regeneration?


The key tools we use in gene insertion and gene editing are plant hormones that were discovered in 1950s. That really enabled us to have plants whose cells we modify turn back into new organisms that have these modifications. That was a giant breakthrough. And, and then we’ve been tweaking it ever since and tweaking the agrobacterium. But, the regeneration step, once you get the DNA into a cell and it does what you want it to, which we’re pretty good at these days, we definitely could get better and higher trees. But then the trick is getting those cells to regenerate into a healthy organism.

And that’s the biggest the biggest bottleneck right now. And so there’s a lot of genes that have been identified through basic science, genes that naturally take part in helping meristem, those are the sort of stem cells, in plants to sort of form. They have funny names. Geneticists like to give them funny names like BABY BOOM and WUSCHEL and others and, those people have have had quite a bit of success, particularly again in monocots and using those natural genes, tweaking them, turning them up higher and so on and so forth, to get transformation editing to be more efficient.

So, we’ve also been doing that and some of the genes that work well in monocots and corn and so forth do not work very well in our trees. We know that. So, part of it is searching for new genes. And agrobacterium is actually a great source because it has a huge amount of untapped genetic diversity and many genes that are involved in modifying plant development to induce the regeneration of shoots or roots. So, that’s where our work is focused in this morphogenetic regulator or dev gene field. And we’re very excited about it. But so far there’s still a lot of work to do to get it to work, particularly in many genotypes.


SS: Q5: You mentioned using some construct specifically IPT, which are used in hormone free regeneration. Could you please talk about that? 


Yeah, As I said, great, great point. As I said, the plant hormones have been amazing tools to enable the field of plant genetic engineering. One of the strategies is rather than adding the hormone in the medium, to actually put the gene for biosynthesis of the hormone into the plant.

So it’s just produced in the genetically modified cells. So those are going to grow and differentiate more than other cells. You put it in the medium, everything grows more including the stuff that’s not modified. So, you have a hard time a needle in a haystack finding it. So IPT and some other genes that we use modify hormone synthesis or reception or processing that allows us to, to increase the frequency of regeneration of genetically modified cells. 


SS: Q6: My next question is about the GREAT Tree Cooperative. You are the director of that organization. Why did you establish this organization?


Yeah. And the field of science, as you know, there’s a great diversity of types of scientists. Some are working on very fundamental processes, you know, how do hormones work? What are the networks of the gene interactions? When you think about a meristem differentiation, we know there are about 2000 genes that are producing proteins. So, it’s incredibly complicated. And we must have basic scientists figuring that out. And then there are scientists like myself, we’re trying to take that basic information and put it into application. And, then there are scientists very involved, really how you apply it, how you integrate it, how you make it economic, how you actually get economic and environmental benefit—that’s another group of scientists. So, I’m somewhere in the middle, and I really do enjoy working with companies. They tend to be bigger companies that have significant R&D efforts and big and big landholdings.


For about 30 years now, GREAT Tree has been existing five and six years. But, it built upon other cooperatives with industry that had other names that we don’t need to worry about. But GREAT trees mean Genetic Research and Engineering of Advanced Transformation, that is the GREAT of trees. It’s really about what we talked about with Dev genes trying to much more smartly develop our transformation, our gene editing and gene insertion systems.


I love working with companies and, just try to see what they really need, what are the obstacles they really face. One of the obstacles which I enjoy trying to work on companies are interested in instead of in the policy area. Thinking about what obstacles do they face and really putting it into practice. And in forestry, it turns out we have a, sort of market restriction systems or certification systems, much like organic food, that completely ban all genetic modification at this level, almost worldwide. So a lot of people don’t know about that. We assume that if we get a better tree that requires less fertilizer and pest resistant, that it would be adopted. But actually, these are artificial barriers. And they’re formed, because in certain parts of the world, including in the USA, people are afraid of GMOs and they’re afraid of gene editing. And they’re not sure they’re part of a sustainable forestry system. And our argument is let’s do the research and see if they help or not. But anyway, so I work to try to reduce those barriers by working with the certifiers, work with other scientists to think about what the industries face, in addition to technical obstacles, what are the social obstacles and what can scientists do to help, find a path forward. I enjoy that kind of work. GREAT Trees does that too. 


SS: Q7: Is it about policy making?


Instead of analysis of policy from the viewpoint of, you know, my bias, if you want to call it that as a scientist, is that policies and regulations that are based more on science than perception and fear are better in the long run. And so I’m trying to sort of guide with my advice policies that I think would be scientifically sounder. But our regulations and policies, particularly in democratic countries, depend on just what people think and feel.

And so it’s difficult you need to really reach out to sort of people and to different organizations to try to get change. And it’s very slow. But that’s but I think having a voice from a scientist, uh, and the companies don’t tell me what to say.

I don’t ask them what to say. Complete academic freedom.

But so far they appreciate trying to make science more front and center as compared to political considerations.


SS: Q8: Could you please provide 1 or 2 examples of your work if that does not violate any kind of IP.


Well, the examples would be, this year we said of improved technology for using Agrobacterium to a co-transformation. This is where you’re using two different strains of agro bacteria and mixed together in a complex recipe to promote the regeneration of transgenic shoots in our poplar trees. And we presented that, in fact, at PlantGENE annual meeting. And, a lot of scientists were also interested, and we sent it out to ten different laboratories who said maybe this would work for pears, maybe this would work for soybean. And so, that was one example of something that we worked on this year. We filed a provisional patent and I think at the end of the day, we probably won’t file a full patent because I think it can be better used without a patent.


And then another one would be, you know, because I have some reputation for writing and thinking about policy from informed viewpoint. I was invited to collaborate with a scientist from Belgium about the prospects for genetic modification of forest trees. And so we written a paper which is under review, a new phytologist sort of looking at the obstacles, social and biological, and suggesting a path forward that I think, you know, it’s I think it’s an excellent paper. It’s a little bit controversial, I hope, because we’re suggesting some pretty big changes to policy that are going to be hard and they have to be global because forest products like agricultural products are traded worldwide. So we need some kind of uniform criteria. But as you know, gene editing rules have been relaxing really globally. And so maybe this is an opportunity for even more change.


SS: Right. Big policy change is always going to be controversial. But it is good to have a debate.


Most scientists don’t understand the the policy aspects. They’re busy doing good science and most scientists don’t want to go where I go. It’s out of their expertise and it can be irritating, and people can, dislike you for your political views, you know, because they are, in essence, they’re my preference.


I’m justifying them with science, but they’re my vision of what a better world would be, a scientific vision. And some scientists will also disagree. So, you sort of take that step, you know, state your reasons, and whatever happens, happens. That’s my view. You know, many, many years ago, my lab, my field was had eco-vandalism. A number of trees were cut down. This is in 2001. And my colleagues had even more severe eco vandalism just to show that what we do, some people don’t like it all. It stopped after 9/11 in the United States. There’s definitely a diversity of opinions about the use of this technology.


SS: Q9: We’ll dive into different aspect. Typically, scientist commence their talk by outlining the project, emphasizing its significance for both science and society. However, in your recent talk at PlantGENE annual meeting you choose to initiate your talk by recognizing your postdoc Dr. Greg Goralogia. I am intrigued as to why you opted for this beginning.


It’s sort of an ethical perspective I had. Science is done by teams, collaborators, and post-docs and grad students and undergrads, and technicians. And none of it is possible without great people working together. And for me, I wasn’t trained as a molecular biologist, but now we’re doing some pretty advanced molecular biology and genetic engineering. So, I really depend on smart postdocs like Greg to sort of lead the way and really getting it done. And I also don’t like, you know, in our world, we tend to identify heroes like individuals. You know, you see, in the news in the United States, Joe Biden did this, Joe Biden did that. That’s a lie. He has teams of experts who are discussing and collaborating, but for political reasons, usually he gets the credit and I think that’s wrong. I understand why it happens in a political sense, but anyway and, I think in academia, I really, and I really like to recognize the team. 


I’m really committed to promoting the careers of the people who work for me. I want Greg to have a lot of visibility to help him get jobs and get grants and proceed in their careers. I’ve done that many times, and in this project in particular, Greg and I, this project with what we call altruistic two strains of agrobacterium and regeneration. We kind of thought of it and conceived of it together, but he really made it happen with his technical expertise. So, I want to give him primary credit in addition to the other reasons I mentioned. 


SS: Q10: Do you have any advice for the next generation of plant scientist or people who are interested to pursue their career in this field?


One is for people who are more molecular or in vitro tissue culture plant scientists, make sure you’re also very computationally, bioinformatically skilled. You may not be a leader, but there are so many extraordinary omics resources that will inform your science and understanding what you do in the lab and what the results mean that don’t think it’s one or the other. You have to be quite skilled. I feel like my students now, everybody should do an omics project even if they’re more molecular lab based. So that’s one thing. 


The other thing is that I do feel like, we need to speak to society honestly, acknowledge our biases. In my case, I work with industry. To some people, that means you’re already sort of biased—you’re not worth listening to. But I think people need to be skilled and, you know, making public where their funding comes from and how you prevent or how you mitigate how you, you know, reduce the bias that that brings in because it does bring in bias and then go out and speak to the world as much as you can. Because I think trust in science and trust in all our institutions has been declining, at least in the United States. So somehow, we need to change that. And I think scientists are being trained to communicate well, to communicate their biases, their preferences. Honestly, you know, we all we all are forced to overstate the importance of what we do in our grant applications. That’s the system. To do that as little as possible and with humility, you know, to state the potential, but also acknowledge this is part of a whole. And they’re not solutions, they’re tools that need to be used with a systems approach in mind and, both social and economic and biological system. So don’t overstate more that you need to, be humble. So those are probably the main things.


SS: Yeah, I would definitely follow your first advice, like learning the computational tool. I am a molecular biologist. But I, I always feel I lack that part. Yeah.


I’m trying my best. But yeah, I was somehow on it.


And I think the only way to do it is to do is to do it for a while. I expect it will want to actually take on a project or a part of your project, a chapter of a thesis or something where you can actually, you know, use the software because it’s quite beautiful and it’s quite complicated.

So you get a feel for the, the computational environment. I wish I had done more of that, frankly. Too old now, though.


SS: Thank you for joining me today. It is my pleasure talking to you, and I am looking forward to reading your exciting research as well as policy document or articles.


Thank you very much. Really enjoyed this.


And I hope, some people will watch it, enjoy it, and feel free to contact me if you have further questions. Yeah. Bye bye now. 


SS: Bye bye. Bye bye.