Pollenless Trees Nothing to Sneeze At in Japan

Itsuo Inouye/AP Photo

Just in time for allergy season, Japanese researchers have engineered a dream come true for those runny noses and itchy eyes: pollen-free cedar trees.

Scientists at the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute announced they have successfully developed the first allergy-free cedar tree by altering the DNA makeup of the plant. Using a process called genetic recombination, researchers were able to create region-specific trees that do not produce pollen, offering a national solution to a problem that's plagued Japan every spring, and appears to be getting worse.

Head researcher Katsuaki Ishii said while American scientists have already engineered pollenless pine trees using similar science, the development is a first for cedars. Low-pollen cedars have been developed and planted across Japan, but the pollen free trees are still in the experimental phase. They are expected to become pollenless within two years of planting, Ishii said.

The news is cause for celebration in a country where one in four people suffer from hay fever every year. Pollen counts have been especially high this year - five times higher than last spring - in part because of a sudden spike in temperatures, and a hot summer last year.

The abundance of cedar trees is largely to blame. Known as "Sugi" in Japan, the trees were planted in mass after World War II, to aid the post-war construction boom. Demand for cedars have declined since, leaving the trees to mature and emit more pollen with age. As a result, the number of Japanese who suffer from hay fever has tripled in the last 30 years, according to the Associated Press.

Soaring pollen counts have been a boon for Japanese retailers who have responded with a smorgasbord of allergy relief products, including surgical masks. From flower-printed and fruit-scented masks, to those taped directly to the cheeks, the partial face cover has become a spring time necessity to minimize the effects of hay fever.

People looking for an alternative can seek out anti-pollen glasses that also claim to prevent lenses from fogging up, nose plugs, nasal sprays, and portable air purifiers small enough to be worn around the neck.

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