Gene-based selection "will lead to better Sitka spruce wood, quicker"

A partnership between Forest Research and the Universities of Oxford and Edinburgh aims to boost the productivity of the UK's most widely planted tree.

Image: James Brooks (CC BY 2.0)
Image: James Brooks (CC BY 2.0)

The Sitka Spruced project will employ advanced genomic testing to identify rare individuals which combine fast growth rate with high timber quality to improve the economics of Sitka spruce plantations.

Over 35 million Sitkas, native of the west coast of North America, are planted in the UK each year, making it the UK's third largest crop by area after wheat and barley, accounting for around half the UK forestry industry’s £2 billion annual revenue.

Taking around 40 years from planting to harvest, only a proportion of trees make the stronger, higher-value construction grades.

The team hope to identify early in their growth the fast-growing trees which will meet the higher construction specifications, by associating variations in their DNA with these positive traits.

If successful, the project paves the way to apply the same genomics technology to screen trees for other properties such as adaptation to drier or nutrient poor sites, or resistance to insects and disease.

Sitka Spruced is a rare forestry research project to be awarded funding by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), and is also funded by the British forestry and wood processing industries.

Professor John MacKay, project lead and Wood Professor of Forest Science at University of Oxford, said: "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."

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