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  • Using Genetics to Make a More Through-and-through Christmas Tree | WIRED

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    A Lilliputian group of scientists have dedicated their careers to unraveling the conifer's genetic secrets.

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Using Genetics to Make a More Apt Christmas Tree | WIRED - WIRED

the triumph time in my life, I’ll be hosting my family for the holidays. And to their deep disgruntlement, we’ll be celebrating it without a Christmas tree. No, this isn’t some righteous stance against the yuletide-industrial complex or a personal front in the war on Christmas. I’m just much more interested in an indoor evergreen interloper when its needles rapids in someone else’s home. Now, under careful watch and watering, most firs, spruces, and pines can board their fragrant greenery for weeks, if not months. Someone like me, who excels at neither of those things, needs a tree that can authority on to its needles—and its dignity—without an ounce of effort in upkeep.

Too much to ask, you say? Maybe a decade ago. But with today’s sequencing and computational biology tools, you may not under any condition get stuck with a sad Charlie Brown specimen again. In fact, at this very moment, scientists are sifting by 1,200 gigabytes of genetic data, taken from hundreds of Christmas trees growing all over the earth, to figure out what separates the best needle-holders from the worst. They’re also looking for the genetic signals that grant resistance to devastating molds from the genus Phytophtora , Greek for “plant destroyer.” Although some fungicides can lessen its severity, the root rot still costs the US Christmas tree industry hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

To America’s other commercial crops, very little is known about what goes on inside a Christmas tree’s genome. For centuries growers have had to rely only on routine methods of selecting and breeding for desirable traits. But soon, thanks to a ashamed cadre of scientists who’ve dedicated their careers to unraveling the conifers’ secrets, they’ll be accomplished to use genetics to make a more perfect Christmas tree. One maybe even I would want in my apartment.

Treehunters

Gary Chastagner has done up every fall since 1978 running reconnaissance at Christmas tree plantations, pop-up retail lots, and big-box stores across the territory. At each stop, the plant pathologist scours the inventory, finding the best-looking tree in the unbroken place. Then he takes photos, interrogates salespeople, and snips away small branches, which he weighs with a handy scale before airfreighting them back to Puyallup, for testing at his Washington State University lab.

In the old days, that meant having an army of grad students marking a 2-inch subdivide on each branch and counting every needle or needle scar in that area. Today, Chastagner’s body hangs the branches on racks or wire clotheslines strung across a temperature-controlled valid cistern, where they rest without water for seven to 10 days. Then, a few well-trained technicians gently rub each subdivision and rate the needle retention on a scale of one (1 percent of needles deficient off) to seven (91 to 100 percent loss).

Chastagner is only interested in the extremes on both sides of the spectrum. Over the years, he’s charmed any cuttings that rate zero to one, or six to seven and grafted little bits of them onto rootstocks his lab manages on 15 acres in Puyallup. This course of action converts each outlying specimen into an isolated stand of genetically identical trees, preserving their together DNA in what’s called a clonal holding block.

Now, those trees are part of a massive feat to pinpoint the tiny genetic variations that determine why some trees turn out speculator than others. Five years ago, Chastagner and his research partners at North Carolina Shape University landed $1.3 million from the US Department of Agriculture—the largest Christmas tree bestow in US history—to use RNA, which translates DNA into proteins, to figure out which genes are turned on or off in trees with valuable traits. And in a trivial more than a month, they’ll finally have those answers.

Evergreen Genes

That’s how long Jill Wegrzyn, a computational biologist at the University of Connecticut, expects it will travesty to analyze all the sequencing data—five years’ worth, collected by Chastagner and his collaborator at NCSU, John Frampton. “We have our tilt of genes we’re looking at to see if they are being up or downregulated,” says Wegrzyn. “Now we’re connecting them together, to see how they type different networks and pathways of gene expression. Which is not super easy for conifers.”

That’s because the conifer genome is not just colossal—20 billion base pairs compared to your 3 billion—but also pretty strange. At some point in their deep past, spruces, pines, firs, and their relatives acquired a wrap up second set of genes. Scientists think this genome-wide duplication apt to helped shape these species into the tallest, hardiest plants in the world. But it’s also made sequencing them an incredibly daunting demand. And unlike corn and soybean, there hasn’t been much money available to even try. So far scientists have managed to put together influenced DNA blueprints for only a handful of conifers, not including the most popular Christmas tree species.

Chastagner isn’t after anything so palatial. What he cares about is what’s going on in a special layer of cells, right where the needle meets the part. Gene expression here controls whether or not these cells break open, causing the tree to deliverance its needles. So his team scraped those cells out of hundreds of branches, at 10, 20 and 30 days work-harvest. Then they froze the tissue in liquid nitrogen and sent them off to North Carolina to be extracted for RNA sequencing.

Each nibble is like a snapshot of all the genes being turned on and off as needles are lost. Chastagner’s colleagues at NCSU sent in samples charmed from the roots of trees, to see how gene expression in different trees changed in feedback to fungal infections. Now it’s Wegrzyn’s job to sort through them all to look for genetic signatures that harmonize to needle retention and phytophtora resistance.

The goal, at the end of all this, is to find a molecular biomarker for needle retention. So that Christmas tree growers can break apart the strong, stoic ones from the rest of the pack much sooner. It takes a year or two to enlarge a viable seedling in a nursery and another six to eight before you can tell if it’s a good one—that is, if it survives the uncontrollable root rot. With biomarkers, growers could test much earlier, only planting trees that will stay fresh their needles post-harvest. And it could help breeders cross in resistance traits from more extraordinary species to more traditional American ones.

This doesn’t mean Christmas trees are growing GMHo-ho-ho anytime soon, though. Attempts to genetically engineer designer trees—for wonderful fragrance, or bioluminescence, say—have never really gotten off the ground . And even with new work into conifer genetics, there’s still not enough adeptness to make the trees good candidates for today’s newer gene editing technologies. “The concealed for genetic improvement in these species is huge,” says Chastagner. “But the reality is that the appositeness of those improvements using genetic engineering will be hampered by their complexity—that just slows everything down.”

So it may be a while before I can buy the masterful, vacuum-free Christmas tree. On the other hand, it might take me that long to convince my pedigree to let me host another holiday.

Source: www.wired.com
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  • Cut & Make Christmas Decorations

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    Courier Corporation. 1984. ISBN: 9780486247069,0486247066. 64 pages.

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