Genome Project Aims to Restore Health of Redwood and Giant Sequoia Forests

By Ann Filmer

Some trees are better at surviving drought, fire, pests, and diseases than others. By identifying the genes responsible for these adaptations, scientists can compile a scalable database that will aid resource managers as they plan long-term conservation strategies, particularly as the climate changes.

UC Davis, Johns Hopkins University and Save the Redwoods League are working together to protect this iconic tree.

Professor David Neale, UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences, showed in preliminary research that it is feasible to sequence the redwood, which has a genome 10 times larger than ours. Redwoods are “hexaploid” with  six copies of each chromosome compared to humans’ two copies.

Neale’s early research is the basis for a new project with Johns Hopkins University and Save the Redwoods League to fully sequence the genomes of coast redwood and giant sequoia for the first time, using conifer genetic sequencing techniques unavailable until now. The team will also develop tools for measuring genetic diversity in these trees.

When completed, the coast redwood genome will be the largest yet sequenced of any organism, Neale told the San Francisco Chronicle.

The project will apply genetics to environmental restoration, Neale said. Understanding the genetic diversity of redwoods and sequoias will help in managing the forests to withstand a changing climate.

Only Five Percent of Old Growth Redwood Forest Survives

Before the 1850s, old-growth redwood forests covered millions of acres on California’s coast. Only about five percent of those forests remain, most of the protected in parks and reserves.

“We have protected nearly all of the old-growth groves that remain on Earth, but there’s so much more we can do for the recovering redwood forests that surround and sustain them,” said Sam Hodder, president and CEO of the Save the Redwoods League. “Understanding redwoods at the genetic level will help us continue to protect both species over the coming millennia.”

By the end of the $2.6 million, five-year project, the genome sequences and the screening tools developed will allow researchers to quickly assess genetic diversity in redwood forests to inform management plans that restore the health and resilience of these forests throughout their natural ranges as they face environmental stressors such as climate change.

Computer analyses and assembly of the genomes from field data will be performed at Johns Hopkins University by a team led by Biomedical Engineering, Computer Science and Biostatistics Professor Steven Salzberg, the Director of the university’s Center for Computational Biology and an associate of the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine.

More information

Redwood Genome Project (Save the Redwoods League)

Genetic Probe of Redwoods, Giant Sequoias is Key to Restoring Forests (San Francisco Chronicle)

Decoding California’s Redwood Trees to Bolster Future Forests (San Jose Mercury News)

DNA Mapping Will Include Sonoma County Redwoods as Hedge to Climate Change (Press Democrat)

Ann Filmer is director of communications for the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences: Department news blog

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