SFU researchers could relieve pine beetle problem

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White spruce genomic maps may have huge effect on BC forestry

By Joel Mackenzie
Photos by Flickr

A group of Canadian scientists, including Steve Jones and Inanc Birol from SFU, have developed genome maps for the white spruce tree, a tree that is very common in British Columbia and important to the BC forestry industry.

Genome maps are orders of the genetic makeup of living beings. They assign DNA fragments to chromosomes, allowing researchers to identify specific traits that plants or animals have. The maps would greatly help by speeding up the process of selective breeding for the trees.

Jones, an SFU molecular biology and biochemistry professor, spent several years with the research team developing the software to find this information, and spent the last year and a half sequencing the spruce genome.

Jones said that those in the forestry industry will be able to identify the genes responsible for the certain traits a tree has, and therefore can ensure that “the trees they plant are the most suited to that particular region and will be more likely to develop into mature trees.”

Selective breeding has been used “for the last 10,000 years,” explained Birol, a computing science adjunct professor at SFU. “Before this research, breeders had to make educated guesses for the properties of the seedlings, then they would have to wait a number of years to measure the results on mature trees, and repeat.

“This research cuts down the waiting time between breeding cycles considerably, perhaps from 25 years to 5 years.” This information could be used to solve major environmental problems as well, specifically the destruction caused by the Mountain Pine beetle in BC over the last few years.

According to a report by the British Columbia Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations, in 2001, the Mountain Pine beetle damaged almost 800,000 hectares of forest in BC. This amount continued to increase yearly, reaching over 18 million hectares of damaged forest by 2011; which included a substantial amount of commercially valuable pine, and was combated with a multi-million dollar Mountain Pine Beetle Action Plan implemented in 2001.

“The white spruce represents a significant percentage of the trees in those forests and across Canada,” noted Birol.“That’s why understanding the spruce biology at the genomic level will allow us to protect them against changing conditions and their effects.”

The Mountain pine beetle has become more prevalent in Canada in recent years due to the fact that the BC interior has recently not experienced the extreme winter weather which killed vast amounts of the beetles in the past; the last such weather event occurred in 1995 / 96.

There is also a dramatically higher amount of healthy trees in BC, as a result of BC’s wildfire management program being established in the last century. The research team’s hopes to combat this epidemic with this new genome research.

While Birol says that in the very competitive field in which this research is taking place, their Canadian project “has the most bang for the buck!” as it is “the first to report a genome at this level of construction.”

He added, “We are not done yet . . . just like the human genome, it will take several more years to ‘complete’ the spruce genome. And, it is a worthy effort, where competitors have to — and will — work together to accomplish.”