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Vancouver lab decodes white spruce's huge genetic code

The same Vancouver laboratory that mapped the breast cancer genome has successfully decoded the genetic building blocks of another important organism: the white spruce, a Canadian natural resource worth billions of dollars.

“It gives us all the information, the parts list essentially, that is used to make that tree,” said Prof. Steven Jones, an associate director of the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre at the BC Cancer Agency.

Jones’ team of scientists pieced the genes together “like a very large, complex jigsaw puzzle” and published the results in the academic journal Bioinformatics.

“Now we’ve got those individual genes in hand, that certainly gives us a leg up in understanding how this tree works from a very fundamental, basic research perspective,” Jones said.

Using this new map of the spruce tree genome, Jones said scientists will be able to study what genetic traits make trees resistant to insects or cold temperatures.

Jones said foresters will be able to use this kind of research to decide what species of tree is best suited to certain environments.

“This represents a tree that is extremely common across Canada and actually makes up a large amount of the lumber that is produced in Canada. It’s important from an economic perspective.

“The world and Canada is undergoing quite a bit of environmental change and as tree stands get destroyed by things like the mountain pine beetle, for instance … we have to think about what kinds of trees we want to plant or replant in those areas,” he said.

“The genetics allow us to identify the traits before we even plant the tree.”

The team took two years to decode the sequence, which is 10 times larger than the human genome.

Jones hopes scientists will discover why the white spruce tree has such a large genome and hypothesized that it might have something to do with the how resilient trees must be to survive.

“We might think of animals as having a more complex genome. But in the event that the environment is not conducive to an animal, theoretically the animal has the option to move away, but a tree does not,” Jones said.

While the BC Cancer Agency is focused on studying genetic traits of cancer, Jones said his team uses complex cases like the white spruce to hone their skills.

“The spruce genome has given us an amazing opportunity to sharpen our tools and make sure that we understand the complexities and algorithms required to put together cancer genomes,” he said.

In addition to Jones and his team, researchers from the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, Laval University and the B.C. Ministry of Forests assisted in mapping the white spruce genome.

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