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N.S. project uses genomes as blueprint for more resilient, valuable trees

Reference: CBC News

A Nova Scotia project working to develop the most resilient forests is rooting their methods in the family tree.

The Genome Atlantic, a non-profit organization, recently received $315,500 over four years to work with the Atlantic Tree Improvement Council to plant faster-growing trees that are more resistant to disease.

The new funding comes out of the Forestry Innovation Transition Trust, which also announced two other projects alongside Genome Atlantic earlier this month.

Genomics is the study of an organism's genome, which is made up of DNA and the "complete set of genetic instructions" that allows it to grow and develop, Richard Donald of Genome Atlantic told CBC's Information Morning on Tuesday.

Donald said Genome Atlantic is looking to select and replicate various ideal tree genes, but not tweak them to create something new, which would be genetic modification.

The process begins with measuring different trees and seeds in various locations, Donald said, and then looking at their genomes for favourable properties they want to select out for an improved next generation.

That way, models can be built to help predict how a new tree will perform, Donald said.

The group is looking for all sorts of target traits, such as faster growth, more resiliency to pests, or the temperature extremes that are expected in a changing climate.

With conventional breeding programs in forestry or agriculture, Donald said two promising parents are selected and crossed together. Researchers then follow their offspring to see how they perform, and whether they have inherited the desirable traits.

But Donald said the problem with this tree-breeding method is it can take up to 30 years to see whether the next generation has inherited those specific traits.

Using new genomic-selection tools, Donald said the time can be cut "by decades down to a few years." Researchers can look at the genetic makeup of the seed, and only plant it if it has the genetic markers researchers want.

By examining the genome of the offspring and the parent trees, Donald said predictions about traits are possible very, very early in a tree's growth... Read More