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UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 6 | Jun. 5, 2003

Exploring the Family Trees of Trees

Making our forests stronger.

By Michelle Cook

In the Canadian forest, the poplar and the spruce couldn’t be farther apart. One is a deciduous hardwood tree, the other a conifer. While the poplar grows very fast, maturing in as little as five to 15 years, the spruce is a bit of a late bloomer and still considered young at 100 years of age. But by mapping out a genetic blueprint for these two very different tree systems, UBC scientists hope to help strengthen Canada’s forest sector.

“How is it possible that a tree survives in one location for 1,000 years with tens of thousands of potential insect or pathogen generations challenging it? What are the genes that control superior wood quality of Sitka spruce?” asks Jörg Bohlmann, an assistant professor in the Biotechnology Laboratory and in the departments of Forest Science and Botany.

“We’re interested in how trees protect and defend themselves against insects and pests, and what determines wood and fibre quality, but the Treenomix project really goes beyond looking at a single chemical compound and how that works against a single insect, to how a tree works in general, and its genetic blueprint.”

Bohlmann and three other UBC researchers -- Carl Douglas, Brian Ellis and Kermit Ritland -- are leading Canada’s first large-scale forestry genomics project. The four have overlapping areas of expertise in tree and plant biology and genetics. Bohlmann says this will enable them to look at a tree from many different angles to get a complete genetic picture.

With $10.8 million in funding from Genome Canada/Genome B.C. and the B.C. government, the team’s goal is to identify and understand the genes in poplar and spruce that are responsible for forest health (how trees interact with their environment in terms of insects, pathogens and changing climate), and wood quality (what determines wood formation and fibre quality, whether a tree can be used for high-quality paper or other industrial purposes).

For their work, they’re adapting strategies such as genome mapping and partial sequencing. They will also focus on expressed -- or active -- genes and proteins. These are the genes thought to contribute to specific characteristics of individual trees. By doing this, they hope to identify which genes are responsible for certain desirable traits, such as superior wood quality or pest resistance.

“The more we understand about the genomics of trees, the better we can harness their potential for increasing demands of Canada’s forest industry,” Bohlmann says. “A genomic blueprint will help us to use our forest resources in an ecological and economically sustainable way with reduced pressure on naturally grown forests, if we can accelerate tree breeding and selection.”

By 2005, the team plans to have more than two hundred thousand gene transcripts partially or completely sequenced. These will be valuable in studying gene function and evolutionary patterns of genes. They will also be one of the largest collections of such sequences in the world.

To undertake such a massive task, Bohlmann and his colleagues have assembled 18 specialists from around the world. They have also partnered with Genome B.C. platform technology experts, and scientists at the B.C. Cancer Agency’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre, the Microarray Centre at Vancouver General Hospital and the University of Victoria’s Proteomics Centre. Other collaborators include the B.C. Ministry of Forests, the Canadian Forest Service, B.C.-based forest biotechnology industry and other industry partners such as Canada’s Pulp and Paper Research Institute. UBC’s Forestry faculty has provided lab and office space for the newly recruited group of researchers.

Bohlmann says if Canada wants to have a sustainable forestry industry, cutting edge genetic knowledge about the trees is a must. For this reason, he is keen to share the project’s findings with industry and the public. The tools will allow researchers and end users to work with gene expression profiling in large marker sets for a variety of applications including identifying the genes underlying wood formation, stress tolerance and disease resistance, and using this knowledge to improve and accelerate tree breeding for quality traits critical to the forest industry.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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