With the aid of a $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation, University of Florida researchers are working with scientists at the University of California, Davis; North Carolina State University; and Texas A&M University to identify genes that regulate wood properties and disease-resistance in loblolly pine.
The research — to be conducted by faculty in UF’s new Genetics Institute — will benefit the $200 billion forest industry in 13 Southern states where loblolly pine is the most- planted species for commercial timber. Southern pines cover just six percent of U.S. forestland, but account for 58 percent of the nation’s total wood production. In Florida, forestry is a $16 billion industry, the state’s largest agricultural commodity.
“By aggressively seeking to identify all of the major genes controlling specific wood properties and disease-resistance traits in loblolly pine, we anticipate a significant breakthrough in our understanding of a pine species that is the highest-valued crop in nine of 13 Southern states,” said Gary Peter, an associate professor of plant genomics in UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences who is leading the UF research effort to identify genes controlling wood properties.
“Wood is also a renewable energy source, and increasing productivity through genetics could help reduce our nation’s dependence on non-renewable energy,” he said.
The NSF Plant Genome Research Program grant was made to UF’s School of Forest Resources and Conservation because of the school’s long history of cooperating with the forestry industry, particularly in interdisciplinary genetic research to identify mechanisms that control productivity and health of planted pines, Peter said.
John Davis, an associate professor of forest biotechnology who is leading the UF effort to identify genes controlling disease resistance, said the research findings will reveal genetic mechanisms that help explain the long evolutionary success of pine trees.
He said the research will generate an unprecedented glimpse of the genes that affect interactions among pine trees, fungi and other natural components of forest systems. The new insights are expected to enhance gene conservation efforts and society’s ability to cope with challenges such as evolving pest populations.
Dudley Huber, an associate in forest genetics and co-director of the UF pine breeding cooperative, said understanding how different genes affect the health and viability of trees in natural and breeding populations will have immediate and far- reaching benefits for tree improvement programs and should dramatically reduce testing costs and breeding cycle times.
Matias Kirst, an assistant professor of quantitative genetics, is leading the UF effort to identify gene regulatory networks. “Genes regulate tree properties; however, some genes also regulate other genes,” he said. “Understanding these networks will help us unravel how genes work together to make a pine tree.”
The UF team also includes George Casella, professor and chair of the statistics department, who is working with Huber to develop and apply novel analytical methods for the discovery of significant associations between genotypes and phenotypes.
Kenneth Berns, director of the UF Genetics Institute, said the NSF grant represents an important stride for the genetics program.
“The Genetics Institute unites researchers from UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences with faculty from the colleges of medicine, engineering, and liberal arts and sciences,” he said. “This kind of study requires expertise in population genetics and bioinformatics — two of the main areas pegged for development in the UF Genetics Institute’s strategic plan.
“Bioinformatics is necessary in the loblolly pine research to analyze gene sequences,” Berns said. “Then, population genetics analysis will be used to understand how evolutionary forces have influenced the gene pool of the species. Both techniques require the classification and analysis of vast amounts of data.”
In addition to the valuable applied benefits of this multidisciplinary research, the loblolly pine project is expected to provide significant insight into an important frontier in fundamental genetic research: the structure, function and regulation of genes that control complex traits, Berns said.