Exploring the Family Trees of Trees

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

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

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.