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The quest for a better spruce

A large and impressive Norway spruce tree from the village Köttsjön in the district of Ragunda in eastern Jämtland is currently the subject of considerable interest for plant researchers at UPSC. Branches taken from the spruce tree 50 years ago were grafted and have produced abundantly and yielded exceptional progeny in the Swedish spruce breeding program. The spruce tree is the first to have its entire genome mapped by the new Science for Life Laboratory (SciLifeLab) in Stockholm. “The spruce tree is Sweden’s most important plant, both from an ecological and an economical standpoint, says Ove Nilsson, professor at UPSC.”

The goal of the project is to do a complete annotation of the entire spruce tree genome, with the first step being to identify all the genes and see where they are located with respect to each other, quite
simply to describe the spruce tree’s genetic map. In the next step, the researchers want to see what these genes do as well as how they are regulated. Understanding which genes are coupled to special traits, such as flowering or wood formation, is meaningful. “The spruce tree is a model and one can apply the new information to other trees. That gives us a niche in Umeå so we can maintain our lead in plant research.”
The ability to choose and select away traits opens up when the genome is mapped, which presents a valuable tool in the breeding process because you can control and direct it such that the desired genes come out with breeding. It can, for example, be about discarding genes with negative characteristics during freezing and drying or selecting for genes that give resistance against diseases or other good traits. “This is very good if we want to produce more wood raw material that can substitute for fossil fuels, plastics and concrete.” Ove Nilsson says that with all likelihood there will be increased pressure on the world’s forests in the future, with the increasing population on earth. With the help of research, one can produce more trees and enhance the quality of the wood fibers, and hopefully find new and valuable uses.

20 billion base pairs to analyse
The Norway spruce tree’s genome is seven times larger than a human’s and is one of the largest genomes known. Ove Nilsson has no explanation for why this is, but says that the spruce tree has many repetitive elements in its genetic material, which means that parts of the genome can replicate themselves and insert into another location. This is also something that researchers want to understand with the project.

DNA is extracted from spruce tree needles to determine the bases that make up the genetic material. In the biotechnology field, there has been rapid development of methods, which means there are new machines that are much more effective and can generate much more data for a much lower price. Today, the limiting factor is the computers that analyze all the data that is produced; they have not kept up with the fast progress.

But it will not be cheap: the entire project is estimated to cost 10 million Euro. Even though this is a large sum, Ove Nilsson thinks that the project will be profitable because the research will lead to greater and more effective production of wood fiber in the future. The project, which is financed by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, started in 2010 and is a joint venture of UPSC and the
newly started Science for Life Laboratory in Stockholm. The first analyses are already complete, but with the spruce tree’s 20 billion base pairs, most of the work remains to be done. The researchers are optimistic and plan to have the analyses finished at the end of 2011. It’s about being first and Ove Nilsson hopes that the first publication will be finished within a year.

Umeå is traditionally known as the City of Birches and perhaps that is why plant research has sprouted in this city. The “blooming period” began during the last ten years and has made Umeå internationally known for its prominent research in forest biotechnology. Umeå Plant Science Centre (UPSC) has succeeded well with its experimental plant research. A key to its success is that it uses two different model systems to test hypotheses in its research. The research builds on gene maps for both the thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) and the hybrid Aspen tree, and a third model system is on the way. The model systems increase the breadth and competitiveness of the research, which has resulted in publications in high-ranking journals. Researchers from other countries are therefore seeking out UPSC, which has become a big, international workplace. Today, approximately 200 employees from 38 different countries work there. UPSC is an umbrella organization with the task of developing a strong joint research and teaching environment in plant biotechnology. The Centre was built in 1999 between Umeå’s two universities, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU, and Umeå University.

Text: Ester Roos-Engstrand, Translation: Betty Guo

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