Tree breeding technique identified for better bioenergy use

By Holly Jessen | October 12, 2011

Researchers from the University of Florida have found a way for tree breeders to create a new pine variety in about six years—less than half than the more than 13 years it takes without the genetic technique. The model allows researchers to accurately predict tree traits without growing it in an eight-year field test.

The plus for potential wood-to-ethanol producers is that the new method could enable faster development of trees for bioenergy. “If we can modify traits much faster, we can create more specialized trees that can be grown for different products than just pulp and paper and solid wood,” said Gary Peter, a professor in UF’s school of forest resources and conservation. “We can tailor them for energy conversion.”

Beyond creating trees that are more readily converted to ethanol, the breeding technique could also help create trees well suited for combustion or drop in fuels, Peter, one of the study’s authors, told EPM. It can also help zero in on trees with better wood quality and disease and pest resistant traits. Another big plus is that breeders can select trees that will do well in the face of climate change, including growing well under higher temperatures and more drought. “Breeders want to be in a position where the genetic material that they use is adaptable to a broad range of conditions,” said Matias Kirst, an associate professor in UF’s school of forest resources and conservation and another study author.

The new genetic technique is expected to help increase the security and competitiveness of the U.S. forestry industry, particularly in the southeast, a leading producer of the world’s pine. In 2009 in Florida alone, the forestry industry had an economic impact of more than $14 billion and provided more than 80,000 jobs. Today, pine is used predominately for building materials, furniture and paper. “Competitiveness is a critical element right now,” Kirst said. “We are under very significant pressure from countries in the world where there’s perhaps less regulation, where there’s higher photosynthetic capacity and the trees grow more. So we have to have the ability to breed more rapidly.”

Researchers developed the genetic technique by bypassing the process of uncovering every bit of pine tree genetic code. They skipped ahead in developing a trait-prediction model by using the parts of the genetic code they were already familiar with.

The study on this research was published Oct. 5 in the online journal, New Phytologist. Other authors of the study include Márcio Resende Jr., a doctoral student in UF’s genetics and genomics program; Patricio Munoz, a doctoral student in UF’s plant molecular and cellular biology program; Juan Acosta, a doctoral student in UF’s school of forest resources and conservation; John Davis, a professor and associate director of UF’s school of forest resources and conservation; Dario Grattapaglia, a genetics and biotechnology resources researcher with Embrapa in Brazil; and Marcos Resende, with the department of forest engineering at the Universidade Federal de Viçosa in Brazil.