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Genetic Technique Reduces Time to Bioengineer Pine Trees

Loblolly pines (USDA.gov)

Loblolly pines (USDA.gov)

Agricultural scientists at University of Florida in Gainesville have discovered a genetic process that can create new pine tree varieties in half the time it takes current methods. The development that involves a major industry in the southeast U.S. is described in the online edition of the journal New Phytologist (paid subscription required).

The research team, which includes colleagues from Brazil, developed a genetic prediction model that makes possible the engineering of new traits in pines without having to grow trees in field tests, a process that can take as long as eight years. The model itself uses a subset of the genetic code of the Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), identifying the known traits to construct the model, rather than trying to decipher the entire genetic code.

The study evaluated the model on about 800 trees grown on four sites. The prediction models estimated the diameter and height at multiple ages for the test trees. The researchers found the model to accurately predict the trees’ traits in most age ranges and within common breeding zones.

Pine forests are an important economic asset to the southeast U.S., used in building materials, furniture, and paper. The university notes that in Florida alone, forestry contributed $14 billion to the state’s economy in 2009 and provided some 80,000 jobs.

The methods devised by the Florida researchers can reduce the time needed to develop new varieties of pines from 13 years to about six years. The paper’s authors say the technique will help improve the ability of pines to cope with warmer temperatures from climate change and resist pests, and develop specialized breeds for specific industries, even renewable biofuels.

“If we can modify traits much faster, we can create more specialized trees that can be grown for different products than just pulp and paper and solid wood,” says forestry professor Gary Peter. “We can tailor them for energy conversion.”

Read more: USDA Funding Research on Climate Change, Agr Production

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