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Published: 2009-12-09

Scientists receive SEK 75 million to map the genes of Sweden's most important plant: Norway spruce

NEWS Take a good look at your Christmas tree - it has seven times more genetic material (DNA) than yourself! It is not known why, but now, Swedish scientists will sequence the Norway spruce genome.

Conifers have dominated on earth for hundreds of millions of years. Primitive amphibians were crawling around in conifer forests during the Carboniferous era. Conifer forests survived the geological catastrophe for 250 million years ago that opened up for the dinosaurs. Their main food were conifers related to spruce and pines of today. And conifers still lived on earth when a meteorite impact of approximately 65 million years ago finished the time of the dinosaurs. Even today, conifers dominate large parts of the globe - all the people on earth together do not weigh more than the coniferous trees in Jämtland County of Sweden. Although there are several so-called "Living fossils", the Swedish National Encyclopedia mentions Tuatara, Coelacanths, Horseshoe Crabs, cycads and ginkgo, but, honestly, how often do you see a Coelacanths?

Apparently conifers were able already for 300 million years ago to create the "perfect genetic mixture" which allowed them to dominate on earth, but how does the genome look in detail? All conifers have twelve chromosomes, but these are extremely large in size; a cell of spruce or pine, owns seven times as much genetic material (DNA) as a cell of a human. Why have conifers as much DNA? Is this the reason for their successful life on earth during millions of years? And have conifers much more genes in reality than you and I, or are their genes just more "spread out" on the large chromosomes? This is not known but this huge amount of DNA is the reason why researchers up to now have avoided identifying the detailed characterization of the genome of spruce. Now, a Swedish research team, with researchers from Umeå Plant Science Centre (UPSC), a research centre run jointly by Umeå University and Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), as well as from the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) and Karolinska Institutet (KI) in Stockholm, will accept the challenge with the help of a SEK 75 million grant from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation.

Spruce is ecologically and economically the most important plant in Sweden. Spruce dominates the forests of southern and central Sweden and it is the feedstock for Swedish forest industry, one of our most important export industries contributing to our prosperity.

- Conifer genetics is extremely exciting, says professor Pär Ingvarsson at Umeå Plant Science Center, who will be the head the new project group. The genomes of single trees differ significantly from each other. Swedish forest genetics has certainly always been very successful but this project is a tremendous step forward in our efforts to provide nursery plants, which are adapted to the very different conditions, which exist within our country, especially in the era of climate change we expect within the next years.

- The fact that a Swedish spruce will be the first conifer to have the genome mapped is extremely important for both Sweden's forest research and forest products, says Professor Ove Nilsson at Umeå Plant Science Center and chairman of the project's steering committee. The complete inventory of the spruce genes will revolutionize the Swedish forest research and enable us to use forest feedstock.

- This project will give us opportunities to develop gene tests on different characteristics of trees, such as fuel value, frost and disease resistance. You may compare this with the mapping of the human genome, which has made gene-testing possible for the development of individual medicines, says Stefan Jansson, professor at Umeå Plant Science Center.

Thanks to the extreme fast development of new DNA sequencing technologies this huge project is now possible to realize.
- To start this project just a year ago would not have been possible, says professor Joakim Lundeberg at KTH. The new governmental funding of the "Science for Life Laboratory", which is supposed to be northern Europe's largest genome research center, will give us access to newest gene technology and our spruce project will be the laboratory's first flagship project.

- A lot of Swedish scientists will have benefit from this project, so the scientific interaction will be high, says Jan Stenlid, Professor at SLU in Uppsala. If we will know the genome we will for example also have the information to understand and combat two major plagues in Swedish forestry, root rot and pine weevil.

The project is expected to last five years, and apart from eight Swedish researchers (Björn Andersson, KI, Rishikesh Bhalerao UPSC, Rosario Garcia Gil UPSC, UPSC Pär Ingvarsson, Stefan Jansson, UPSC, KTH Joakim Lundeberg, Ove Nilsson and Björn Sundberg UPSC UPSC) there will also Canadian, Italian and Belgian scientists to contribute to the project. The Swedish spruce gene-sequencing project is known so far as the first project in the world that will deal with the largest amount of genetic material ever sequenced in a plant or animal species.

For further information contact

Pär IngvarssonPhone: +46 (0)70 - 848 59 77
E-mail: par.ingvarsson@emg.umu.se

Stefan Jansson Phone: +46 (0)70 - 677 23 31
E-mail: stefan.jansson@plantphys.umu.se

Joakim LundbergPhone: +46 (0)70 - 458 23 46
E-mail: joakiml@biotech.kth.se

Ove NilssonPhone: +46 (0)70 - 286 90 82
E-mail: ove.nilsson@genfys.slu.se