Using Genetics to Make a More Perfect Christmas Tree


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This yr, for the primary time in my life, I’ll be internet hosting my household for the vacations. And to their deep disgruntlement, we’ll be celebrating it and not using a Christmas tree. No, this isn’t some principled stance in opposition to the yuletide-industrial complicated or a private entrance within the conflict on Christmas. I’m simply rather more considering an indoor evergreen interloper when its needles fall in another person’s dwelling. Now, underneath cautious watch and watering, most firs, spruces, and pines can maintain their aromatic greenery for weeks, if not months. Somebody like me, who excels at neither of these issues, wants a tree that may maintain on to its needles—and its dignity—with out an oz of effort in repairs.

An excessive amount of to ask, you say? Perhaps a decade in the past. However with as we speak’s sequencing and computational biology instruments, chances are you’ll by no means get caught with a tragic Charlie Brown specimen once more. In reality, at this very second, scientists are sifting via 1,200 gigabytes of genetic information, taken from tons of of Christmas timber rising all around the world, to determine what separates the very best needle-holders from the worst. They’re additionally on the lookout for the genetic alerts that confer resistance to devastating molds from the genus Phytophtora, Greek for “plant destroyer.” Though some fungicides can cut back its severity, the basis rot nonetheless prices the US Christmas tree business tons of of thousands and thousands of annually.

Not like America’s different industrial crops, little or no is thought about what goes on inside a Christmas tree’s genome. For hundreds of years growers have needed to rely solely on conventional strategies of choosing and breeding for fascinating traits. However quickly, due to a small cadre of scientists who’ve devoted their careers to unraveling the conifers’ secrets and techniques, they’ll be capable of use genetics to make a extra excellent Christmas tree. One possibly even I might need in my condominium.


Gary Chastagner has spent each fall since 1978 working reconnaissance at Christmas tree plantations, pop-up retail tons, and big-box shops throughout the nation. At every cease, the plant pathologist scours the stock, discovering the best-looking tree in the entire place. Then he takes pictures, interrogates salespeople, and snips away small branches, which he weighs with a transportable scale earlier than airfreighting them again to Puyallup, for testing at his Washington State College lab.

Within the outdated days, that meant having a military of grad college students marking a 2-inch section on every department and counting each needle or needle scar in that space. In the present day, Chastagner’s staff hangs the branches on racks or wire clotheslines strung throughout a temperature-controlled concrete cistern, the place they relaxation with out water for seven to 10 days. Then, a couple of well-trained technicians gently rub every department and charge the needle retention on a scale of 1 (1 p.c of needles fall off) to seven (91 to 100 p.c loss).

Chastagner is barely within the extremes on each side of the spectrum. Over time, he’s taken any cuttings that charge zero to at least one, or six to seven and grafted little bits of them onto rootstocks his lab manages on 15 acres in Puyallup. This course of converts every outlying specimen into an remoted stand of genetically equivalent timber, preserving their distinctive DNA in what’s known as a clonal holding block.

Now, these timber are a part of a large effort to pinpoint the tiny genetic variations that decide why some timber prove higher than others. 5 years in the past, Chastagner and his analysis companions at North Carolina State College landed $1.three million from the US Division of Agriculture—the biggest Christmas tree grant in US historical past—to make use of RNA, which interprets DNA into proteins, to determine which genes are turned on or off in timber with precious traits. And in a little bit greater than a month, they’ll lastly have these solutions.

Evergreen Genes

That’s how lengthy Jill Wegrzyn, a computational biologist on the College of Connecticut, expects it should take to research all of the sequencing information—5 years’ price, collected by Chastagner and his collaborator at NCSU, John Frampton. “We’ve our listing of genes we’re taking a look at to see if they’re being up or downregulated,” says Wegrzyn. “Now we’re connecting them collectively, to see how they kind completely different networks and pathways of gene expression. Which isn’t tremendous straightforward for conifers.”

That’s as a result of the conifer genome is not only monumental—20 billion base pairs in comparison with your three billion—but in addition fairly bizarre. In some unspecified time in the future of their deep previous, spruces, pines, firs, and their family acquired an entire second set of genes. Scientists suppose this genome-wide duplication possible helped form these species into the tallest, hardiest vegetation on the earth. But it surely’s additionally made sequencing them an extremely daunting problem. And in contrast to corn and soybean, there hasn’t been a lot cash obtainable to even strive. Thus far scientists have managed to place collectively partial DNA blueprints for under a handful of conifers, not together with the preferred Christmas tree species.

Chastagner isn’t after something so grand. What he cares about is what’s happening in a particular layer of cells, proper the place the needle meets the department. Gene expression right here controls whether or not or not these cells break open, inflicting the tree to launch its needles. So his staff scraped these cells out of tons of of branches, at 10, 20 and 30 days post-harvest. Then they froze the tissue in liquid nitrogen and despatched them off to North Carolina to be extracted for RNA sequencing.

Every pattern is sort of a snapshot of all of the genes being turned on and off as needles are misplaced. Chastagner’s colleagues at NCSU despatched in samples taken from the roots of timber, to see how gene expression in several timber modified in response to fungal infections. Now it’s Wegrzyn’s job to type via all of them to search for genetic signatures that correspond to needle retention and phytophtora resistance.

The objective, on the finish of all this, is to discover a molecular biomarker for needle retention. In order that Christmas tree growers can separate the robust, stoic ones from the remainder of the pack a lot sooner. It takes a yr or two to develop a viable seedling in a nursery and one other six to eight earlier than you’ll be able to inform if it’s a very good one—that’s, if it survives the rampant root rot. With biomarkers, growers may take a look at a lot earlier, solely planting timber that may maintain their needles post-harvest. And it may assist breeders cross in resistance traits from extra unique species to extra conventional American ones.

This doesn’t imply Christmas timber are going GMHo-ho-ho anytime quickly, although. Makes an attempt to genetically engineer designer timber—for tremendous perfume, or bioluminescence, say—have by no means actually gotten off the bottom. And even with new work into conifer genetics, there’s nonetheless not sufficient data to make the timber good candidates for as we speak’s newer gene enhancing applied sciences. “The potential for genetic enchancment in these species is large,” says Chastagner. “However the actuality is that the appliance of these enhancements utilizing genetic engineering can be hampered by their complexity—that simply slows all the pieces down.”

So it could be some time earlier than I should purchase the right, vacuum-free Christmas tree. However, it would take me that lengthy to persuade my household to let me host one other vacation.

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