Scientists discover longest genome ever in loblolly pine

By Katie Demeria

A Virginia tree recently advanced scientific research and may eventually play a role in developing alternative forms of fuel.

According to a Virginia Department of Forestry news release, a team of scientists from across the country were able to decode the genome of a Virginia loblolly pine.

Scientists discovered 22 billion base pairs within the genome — the largest ever sequenced, according to Jerre Creighton, the department’s research program coordinator. By comparison, the human genome contains 3 billion base pairs, the release stated.

The discovery will not only allow researchers to adjust the tree’s makeup, but it could lead scientists to discover even longer genomes from other trees.

“They anticipate bigger genomes in the future now that they’ve come up with the process,” Creighton said.

Right now the team, which consists of scientists from universities across the country, is working to sequence a spruce tree, he added.

“This is quite a quantum leap in their abilities,” Creighton said.

Loblolly pines are native to the southern regions of the commonwelath, but the tree is most commonly planted throughout all of Virginia, largely because it is so easy to plant and maintain, Creighton said.

David Means of Copper Forest, LLC, a certified arborist in Front Royal, said the tree is commonly found on plantations.

Its wood was useful, Means said, and could be used for lumber, pulp, paper and pills, so it was historically planted quite often.

Creighton has been researching the pine for around 30 years, he said. It has strong potential to be used as feedstock for biofuel, which requires trees that can be grown quickly in a small, manageable area.

With the discovery of the genome process, Creighton said new breeds of the pine can be developed that may allow the loblolly pine to be an even shorter term crop, or to resist fusiform rust, one of the pathogens that is most deadly to the tree.

“It’s a great starting point,” Creighton said. “It’s difficult at the very beginning of a discovery like this to see exactly where it may lead, but it could be the same kind of benefits that we were all excited about when they talked about human genome sequencing — you may be able to locate somewhere in that gene to control disease resistance or height of the tree or maybe make better wood.”

“I’d like to see them work on oak trees or others that have specific benefits to other parts of the ecosystem,” he added.

The Department of Forestry is able to participate in these types of research projects often, Creighton said, because there is less red tape for researchers to go through, which they may encounter when working with a private company.

“Anytime that we can collaborate with a broader group of stakeholders is great,” he said. “It’s really nice to see it all leveraged and pay off for a broader good.”

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com