Cutting tree breeding down to size

Canada's forest industry is one of the biggest and most successful in the world, and a major contributor to jobs, growth and prosperity in Canada — a $57 billion a year industry that employs some 230,000 Canadians, and contributes well over 10% of our country's manufacturing Gross Domestic Product. Forestry is a major employer of Aboriginal Canadians and the economic heart of more than 200 communities across CanadaFootnote 1 Footnote 2.

Canada's forest industry is also among the most sustainable in the world. Along with practising advanced forest management techniques, Forest Products Association of Canada member companies plant an estimated 650 million trees every year. Tree breeding programs carried out over many decades help companies choose the best seedlings for planting — trees that are most likely to show strong growth, resistance to disease, adaptation to climate, and desirable wood characteristics.

At the Québec City labs of the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre — part of the Canadian Forest Service of Natural Resources Canada — Dr. Jean Beaulieu is leading research that may revolutionize tree breeding.

A slow process

As Greg Adams, Manager, Research and Development, Nurseries and Tree Improvement at J.D. Irving, Limited — a large regional forests products company in the Maritimes and State of Maine — explains, tree breeding is a slow process. "You have to select the trees you believe will produce good offspring, you have to figure out a way to propagate them and you have to breed and test them," says Mr. Adams. "It takes a long time to breed the trees and it takes a long time for the offspring to grow up so you can tell if they have the characteristics you want, and whether they will be suitable parents for the next generation."

Dr. Beaulieu points out, "That can take 20 years or more. With the application of genomics, we may be able to reduce that to as little as one or two years, perhaps even a matter of months."

Genomics can speed things up

With the support of the Government of Canada's Genomics Research and Development Initiative (GRDI), Dr. Beaulieu and his colleagues are studying the genomes of mature trees to identify genetic 'markers' that are associated with the most valuable traits.

"We are looking at the genetic make-up of thousands of trees to see where the variations are," says Dr. Beaulieu. "By comparing certain sequences of genes from each of the trees, we can see where the trees that have the characteristics we want differ from the less desirable trees."

With that information, Dr. Beaulieu says future tree breeding programs can be more precise. "Rather than breeding trees based on the qualities we can see — with no guarantee that the traits they possess will be passed on to the next generation — breeders will be able to select trees based on their genetic make-up. This would increase the probability that the next generation will have the characteristics you're looking for."

Similarly, Dr. Beaulieu says the application of genomics can also accelerate tree breeding programs. "For example, after you have crossed the parents, rather than waiting for the offspring to mature, you would be able to tell at the seedling or even at the seed stage whether the next generation has inherited the traits you want."

Exciting possibilities

The work led by Dr. Beaulieu is attracting a lot of attention, and the results he and his team have achieved so far are already contributing to tree-breeding research being carried out by provincial governments in both Québec and Newfoundland and Labrador. In addition to GRDI, the project has also attracted funding from Natural Resources Canada's Forest Industry Long-Term Competitiveness Strategy, Laval University, Genome Québec and Genome Canada, among other agencies. This exciting research is also carried out with colleagues of Canadian universities who are among the best world experts in forest genomics.

At J.D. Irving, Mr. Adams says there is no question that genomics offers exciting possibilities for the forest industry. "If Dr. Beaulieu's method is proven and verified across populations, I know exactly how I would use it," says Mr. Adams. "Certainly, we are still some distance from commercial application, but Dr. Beaulieu's work appears to be some of the most positive developments we've seen in the field."

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