(UK)

A research collaboration is going to use genomics to help boost one of the UK’s most important crops.

Teams from Oxford and Edinburgh universities, along with researchers from Forest Research – an agency of the Forestry Commission, are applying a breeding technique called ‘genomic selection’ to pinpoint Sitka spruce conifer trees – at an early stage – that are growing fast and are of a high quality.

After wheat and barley, the Sitka spruce is the third biggest crop in the UK by ‘area of cultivation’. It also accounts for half of the UK timber industry’s £2 billion annual revenue and is used for a variety of products, including paper making and construction.

The ‘Sitka Spruced’ research project seeks to use genomics to facilitate faster tree breeding and maintain genetic diversity. It is receiving funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC).

Professor John MacKay, Project lead and Wood Professor of Forest Science at Oxford University, said: “I am really excited to be part of such a research landmark, breeding to increase the economic return of Sitka spruce. The funding from BBSRC is testament to the project’s long-term value.

“Genomics offers unprecedented potential to shorten the tree breeding process, which is the key to reaching harvestable size earlier. With Sitka Spruced we not only aim for faster tree growth and a reduction of plantation rotation from 40 to around 30 years, but also to improve the quality of wood stocks. The economics are clear if it becomes possible to grow three rotations in the same period of time it used to take to grow two, and also to improve the wood quality.”

Professor Melanie Welham, BBSRC Chief Executive, added: ‘The BBSRC receives few forestry-related research proposals and is pleased to be able to fund this project on the genetic improvement of Sitka spruce in partnership with industry.  We are keen to build on the legacy of the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Initiative in which BBSRC led a multi-funder consortium with DEFRA, ESRC, the Forestry Commission, NERC and the Scottish Government.”