UP researchers unravel gene networks driving wood formation in trees

Posted on January 26, 2017


For millennia wood has played an integral role in the development of human civilisation, providing a source of energy and raw materials for building, furniture, industry and art. Today, planted forests produce an important renewable feedstock (wood) that forms the basis of a multi-billion dollar forest products industry, providing timber, pulp, paper, textiles and a myriad of other bio-based products. As we begin to move away from a fossil carbon economy, wood as a sustainable source of biomaterials and bioenergy, is increasing in importance. How trees produce vast amounts of wood and how to change the properties of wood to suit various end uses are questions that have been difficult to pursue in trees, due to their large sizes and long life cycles. The advent of genomics technologies allowing the profiling of thousands of genes, even in difficult to analyse tissues, such as wood from mature trees, promises to overcome these hurdles.

A team of researchers in the Department of Genetics at the University of Pretoria (Dr Eshchar Mizrachi, Dr Nanette Christie and Prof Zander Myburg), together with collaborators in Belgium, Canada and the USA, are reporting one of the first large-scale, integrated analyses of 10 000s of genes profiled in the developing wood of plantation trees. In their paper, published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (Mizrachi et al. PNAS, 17 January 2017) the international team describes how they have used network-based approaches (connecting genes with similar expression and functions) to unravel the molecular basis of wood formation. In particular, the team pioneers a new approach, known as systems genetics, which leverages the power of genetics in large numbers of trees.

For their project the team, led by Prof Myburg, sampled genetic materials from developing wood of 156 Eucalyptus trees and profiled the expression of nearly 30 000 genes in each tree, allowing them to identify gene networks important for structural and chemical properties of different woodtypes. This information can now be used for molecular breeding or genetic engineering of trees in an effort to develop a new generation of woody biomass crops, supporting a thriving and sustainable bio-based economy.

This work was supported by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), the National Research Foundation (NRF) and by Sappi through the Forest Molecular Genetics (FMG) Programme at UP.


Paper URL: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2017/01/12/1620119114.full

Twitter: http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/long/1620119114v1

Prof Myburg profile: http://www.fabinet.up.ac.za/zmyburg

FMG: http://www.fabinet.up.ac.za/index.php/research-groups/forest-molecular-genetics




- Author Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences

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