Campus News

Forest genetics researcher effort to sequence and catalog conifer genes for future biofuels research

Jeffrey Dean, professor of forest biotechnology in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, is spearheading a project with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute that will greatly expand the gene catalog for pine trees and initiate the first gene discovery efforts in five other conifer families.

The project will be a significant piece of the JGI’s Community Sequencing Program, which focuses state-of-the-art genome analysis resources on biological organisms that have implications for helping wean the nation’s dependence on fossil fuel, according to the JGI press release announcing research proposals selected in this year’s competition.

“The wood from conifers will almost certainly be an important component of this nation’s biomass energy strategy. But despite extensive commercial plantations, they remain essentially an undomesticated species,” Dean said. “Information from this project will greatly enhance the ability of our tree improvement programs to develop pines tailored to suit the needs of the future bioenergy industry.”

The goal of Dean’s research is to produce a comprehensive catalog of how all the genes expressed as conifers grow, develop and respond to their environments. By comparing genes expressed by different conifer species in similar tissues under similar conditions, scientists will be able to more quickly identify the key genes controlling tree growth and development.

Such studies also will improve understanding of the formation of biomass components such as lignin that impede production of biofuels from lignocellulosic materials, including wood.

Other targeted species for the project include coast redwood, one of the fastest growing conifers, and Wollemia nobilis, a species related to the Norfolk Island pine that was thought extinct until a small grove was discovered in Australia in 1994.