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New genetics project could help save the ash tree

Thu, 12/20/2012 - 11:24pm
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New genetics project could help save the ash tree

21 December 2012, by Tamera Jones

Scientists plan to decode the ash tree's entire genetic sequence in the hope of stopping Britain's trees from being completely devastated by the Chalara ash dieback fungal disease.

Ash canopy

Ash canopy.

A small percentage of ash trees in Denmark are showing some resistance to the fungus. By decoding the tree's genetic sequence, scientists will take a crucial first step towards identifying the genes that confer this resistance.

Together with field trials and breeding programmes, this knowledge will help produce a more resilient strain of the tree.

'Sequencing the ash genome is a foundational step towards discovering the genetic basis of resistance to ash dieback: the future of ash trees in Britain may depend on this. At Queen Mary, University of London we will build on our experience of sequencing the birch genome to optimise this ash genome project,' says project leader, Dr Richard Buggs from Queen Mary, University of London.

The £50,000 project funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is scheduled to start in January 2013.

'Sequencing the ash genome is a foundational step towards discovering the genetic basis of resistance to ash dieback: the future of ash trees in Britain may depend on this.

Dr Richard Buggs, Queen Mary, University of London

The researchers expect to have a first draft of the tree's entire genetic sequence by August 2013. Once sequencing is complete, they plan to make it publicly available for use by other researchers.

'The Natural Environment Research Council is making an important contribution to tackling the country's ash dieback crisis. I'm confident this project will be a huge step forward towards solving this problem,' says NERC's chief executive, Professor Duncan Wingham.

So far, ash dieback has been found at almost 300 places across the country. But with ash the third most abundant broadleaf species in Britain's woodlands, 80 million trees are at risk. The loss of Britain's ash population would pose a serious threat to the plants and animals that depend on the trees for survival.

Ash trees across the rest of Europe have already been ravaged by ash dieback, and it's recently become clear that the disease is already too widespread to be eliminated from Britain.

The most visible signs that a tree is infected with the Chalara fraxinea fungus are bleeding sores and cankers on the bark and discolouration of the underlying sapwood.

Dr Buggs will work with Dr Steve Lee, programme group manager for genetic improvement at Forest Research. The researchers will use genomic services company Eurofins MWG Operon to decode the ash tree's genetic sequence. They will collaborate with genomics software company CLCBio to analyse the data generated.

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