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.