Tree geneticist receives $3.7 million grant for hardwoods research

March 03, 2011

University Park, Pa. -- A plant geneticist in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences has received a $3.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop genomics resources to address forest-health issues affecting hardwood trees.

John Carlson, professor of molecular genetics in the college's School of Forest Resources, is principal investigator on the project, "Comparative Genomics of Environmental Stress Responses in North American Hardwoods," funded by the NSF Plant Genome Research Program.

Penn State researchers will collaborate with those at six other universities on the project: University of Notre Dame, University of Tennessee at Knoxville, University of Missouri, Clemson University, Michigan Technological University and University of West Alabama.

Director of the Schatz Center for Tree Molecular Genetics, Carlson explained that the research is needed because of the increasing incidence of introduced exotic pests, diseases and invasive plants -- combined with climate change and forest fragmentation -- threatening the sustainability of forest ecosystems.

"However, few genomic resources are available for the consortium of hardwood species that compose our eastern forests," he said. "In this project, seven university research groups will work together to develop new genomic resources for important species that represent the major taxonomic groups of eastern hardwood trees, from the oldest to more recently evolved."

They include yellow poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), northern red oak (Quercus rubra), black walnut (Juglans nigra), sugar maple (Acer saccharum), blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica) and green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica).

According to Carlson, goals for the research include developing new gene-sequence databases for six species: sweetgum, honeylocust, black walnut, sugar maple, black gum and green ash; creating "genetic linkage maps" for five species: yellow poplar, sweetgum, honeylocust, northern red oak and black walnut; and assembling genomic DNA libraries for six species: sweetgum, honeylocust, black walnut, sugar maple, green ash and northern red oak.

"We also will develop genetic tools, such as genes and DNA markers, for rapidly assessing genetic variation and diversity among hardwood trees for traits related to resistance and/or susceptibility to environmental stresses, such as drought, heat, pathogens and insects," he said.

"We hope our research will be applicable to forest health, tree improvement and breeding, forest management, and science education. This research is focused on producing new tools to address forest-health issues in the long term and to protect genetic diversity in our forests in the shorter term."

Species selected for this project were chosen to provide the broadest possible coverage of taxonomic groups that include hardwood trees, Carlson noted. This broad coverage will improve forest scientists' ability to identify traits and versions of genes that are shared among hardwood tree species versus those that may be specific to particular types of trees.

The project also has broad regional coverage in terms of the universities involved.

"Most timberlands in the United States are natural forests, of which eastern hardwood forests comprise more than half," he said. "The eastern hardwood forests are complex biological systems, covering more than 400 million acres of bottomland and riparian sites, major watersheds, mesic (moist) sites and upland xeric (dry) sites.

"These forests provide habitat and food for wildlife, stabilization of riparian zones, long-term carbon sequestration and other essential ecosystem services -- as well as wood, paper and biomass products for human use."

  • Tree geneticist John Carlson

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated March 21, 2011