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Discovery may speed forest biotechnology

Researchers have discovered the genetic controls which cause trees to stop growing and go dormant in the fall, as well as the mechanism that causes them to begin flowering and produce seeds ?a major step forward in understanding the basic genetics of tree growth.

The findings were made by scientists from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Oregon State University and two other institutions, and published in the journal Science. They represent a significant fundamental advance in explaining the annual growth cycles and reproduction of trees.

By knowing the genes that control these processes, it should be possible to genetically engineer trees that flower and reproduce more quickly. The long, slow growth of trees before they produce seed has been a major stumbling block towards the types of breeding that has been common with annual crop plants, and this may open the door to important advances in intensive forestry and fruit tree improvement.

Information of this type, researchers say, may also help scientists better predict how some types of trees and tree populations will respond to climate change.

"Before this we never really knew what genes were involved in the initiation of tree flowering or the cessation of growth in the fall," said Steven Strauss, a professor of forest genetics at OSU. "At least in theory, it may now be possible to dramatically speed up tree breeding programs and strategies.

"Trees grow for a long time before they begin to produce seed, several years and sometimes decades," he said. "Because of that, a lot of breeding approaches common with short-lived species that flower rapidly, such as corn and wheat, have been too slow to be practical."

A remaining obstacle, Strauss said, is public understanding of the nature and safety of genetic engineering with trees, which has led to limited interest in the field by private industry and sometimes unwieldy regulations by government agencies. These
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Source:Oregon State University


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