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Genome could unlock eucalyptus potential for paper, fuel and fiber

Source: OSU press release

In a collaborative effort spanning five continents, scientists have announced the complete sequencing of one of the world's most widely planted trees, Eucalyptus grandis.

Used for fuel and timber, the species commonly known as flooded gum or rose gum is valued for fast growth and straight grain. Often grown as a hybrid, it is one of more than 500 species of eucalyptus trees and shrubs that provide a renewable source of fiber, pulp, biofuel material, and medicinal and industrial oils.

The accomplishment was published today in the scientific journal Nature.

"This genome sequence will help usher in a new era for studying the biology of the eucalyptus tree." said Pankaj Jaiswal, a botany and plant pathology professor in OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences. "Our advances in understanding could help redefine the possibilities of improving biomass yield, stress tolerance and other traits,"

Jaiswal and his colleagues used the high-performance computing facility in Oregon State's Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing to assign functions to the tree's 36,000-plus genes. They identified which genes correspond to biological processes that underpin control of growth rate, wood hardness, flowering and other attributes.

Plant breeders can use the eucalyptus genome to enhance or suppress traits in the tree, Jaiswal pointed out. For example, breeding for more lignin, which confers strength to woody tissue, can produce wood better suited for furniture. Trees with less lignin could require less energy and less of the chemicals needed to make paper from eucalyptus pulp.

For breeding purposes, one of the most significant accomplishments stems from understanding the genes associated with flowering. Eucalyptus trees generally take three to 10 years to flower after they are propagated from seed, a process that slows the rate of breeding considerably, said Steve Strauss, a co-author of the Nature paper and an Oregon State distinguished professor of forest biotechnology in the College of Forestry.

Strauss has already shown that activating genes responsible for flower development can accelerate flowering. "By accelerating the speed of eucalyptus flowering, plant breeders can shorten generation time for developing new varieties with improved traits," Strauss said. Revised phylogenetic position of Eucalyptus in green plant taxonomy (Source: Nature Publications)

Researchers can also use the floral gene sequences to prevent or disrupt flowering. That technology could help stop the undesirable spread of the tree and prevent it from becoming invasive.

The study is also leading to a better understanding of the evolutionary relationships of eucalyptus and its relatives. OSU professors Joseph Spatafora and Aaron Liston worked with Jaiswal to redefine the placement of eucalyptus in plant classification.

"We managed to reassign its position in the evolutionary tree of life," said Liston. "The genome provides a better roadmap for breeders to follow, although there is still a long road ahead of us to adapt the plant to all of our desired uses."

A research group from South Africa, led by Alexander Myburg of the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute at the University of Pretoria, supplied the eucalyptus tissues and RNA sequenced by Oregon State.

Collaborating in the research were 80 scientists in South Africa, Brazil, North America, Europe and Australia (where eucalyptus originated). Among the funding sources were Oregon State University, the Tree Biosafety and Genomics Research Cooperative and the National Science Foundation. A contribution by the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute was supported by the DOE Office of Science.

Publication link: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v510/n7505/full/nature13308.html

Co-authors from the OSU include: Pankaj Jaiswal, Aaron Liston, Joey Spatafora, Sushma Naithani, Justin Elser, Palitha Dharmawardhana and Rajani Raja from the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology; Steve Strauss, Kelly Vining, Vindhya Amarasinghe and Martin Ranik from the Department of Forest, Ecosystems and Society; Christopher Sullivan and Alexander E Boyd from the Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing.