Scientists see wood for trees in largest ever sequences

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  • Published: May 24, 2013
  • Author: Jon Evans
  • Channels: Proteomics & Genomics

Conifer Two research groups have succeeded in sequencing the largest genomes ever attempted, both of which belong to species of conifer. A group of mainly Swedish scientists sequenced the genome of the Norway spruce (Picea abies), which grows widely in northern Europe, while a group of Canadian scientists sequenced the genome of the white spruce (Picea glauca), which grows widely in North America.

The genomes of both conifers consist of over 20 billion bases, making them around seven times larger than the human genome and almost 150 times larger than the genome of the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. Nevertheless, the researchers identified slightly over 28,000 functional genes in the Norway spruce genome, only slightly more than humans (who have around 20,000) and very similar to A. thaliana (which has around 27,000). This implies that conifers have built up a lot of repetitive DNA sequences in their genomes, perhaps because they have not developed effective mechanisms for deleting such repetitive DNA.

'It is remarkable that the spruce is doing so well despite this unnecessary genetic load,' says Pär Ingvarsson at Umeå University in Sweden, who was a member of the team that sequenced the Norway spruce genome. 'Of course, some of this DNA has a function but it seems strange that it would be beneficial to have so very much. This appears to be something special for conifers.'

As well as being of scientific interest, these sequenced genomes should also provide commercial benefits. Conifers supply much of the wood used for producing pulp, paper and wood-based products, and account for a large proportion of the forestry industry in both Canada and Sweden.

'These genome sequences allow us to develop innovative tools for tree breeding, addressing economically and ecologically important targets such as insect resistance, wood quality, growth rates and adaptation to changing climate,' says Jörg Bohlmann at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, who was a member of both groups.

A paper on the sequencing of the Norway spruce genome was published in Nature, while a paper on the sequencing of the white spruce was published in Bioinformatics.

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