Better Trees for a better economy

Cutting-edge research brings greater insight into how trees react to stress and how that can affect Georgia's economy

CJ Tsai

Director, The Plant Center

Winfred N. "Hank" Haynes Professor

Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar

Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources

Department of Genetics

Franklin College of Arts & Sciences

Written by Kelley Engelbrecht

Published 10.25.17

It’s known as the “wood basket”: a highly productive region of forests in the southern U.S. that plays a large role in sustaining the national lumber industry.

In addition to contributing to a wide range of construction trades, this also includes paper and bioenergy industries and supports ecological benefits that range from environment stabilization to wildlife habitats. Because this region extends through Georgia and has a significant impact on the state’s economy, researchers at the University of Georgia are working to understand trees at a molecular level so they can better predict and mitigate the effects of disease and environmental stress.

According to CJ Tsai, former director of the university’s Plant Center and 2017 Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, trees tend to be understudied organisms. But now, Georgia’s researchers are investigating the genetic systems and molecular structures of these species, discovering that the tree genome is more complicated than previously assumed.

Because trees live so much longer than most crops, Tsai and her team can’t carry out research on multiple generations, which is how scientists use genetics to identify the leading genes for a fixed effect, such as shape and color. But since trees require genes from the male and female parents, she is using the newest genome editing technology to edit both copies to produce a new, genetically modified tree with a fixed mutation. Recently, Tsai and her team were able to use this method to mutate specific genes in deciduous trees, like aspens and cottonwoods, in order to reduce the concentrations of naturally occurring plant polymers.

This work has critical implications as environmental stressors like floods, droughts and heat waves become more commonplace.

“We’re beginning to understand the holistic response of trees and crops to stress and how they respond to difficult environments,” says Tsai. “As a result, we’re able to identify candidate genes that we can target for improvement through traditional breeding or gene-editing technology.”

And as Tsai and her team continue their study of trees, their research is opening doors to new research opportunities for trees and other crops, looking at the perennial challenges that arise with multiple growing seasons and the different plant mechanisms used for dealing with stress.

In understanding how to trees react to stress, Tsai and her team are giving the industry tools to sustain their businesses and, in turn, contribute to the state’s economic growth.

And since Georgia is home to one of the nation’s best research facilities for the plant sciences, it makes sense that the university is at the vanguard of this research. 

“We’re exposed to the wonderful work of plant research, from breeding improvement to genomics, collaborating with other scientists,” says Tsai. “This results in a strong plant science group, making it one of the best places in the world to conduct plant research.”

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