Did you know that your Christmas tree has more DNA material than you do? That’s right, that beautifully decorated spruce that stands proudly in the family room of your house is much more advanced than you (genetically speaking).
Coniferous (cone-bearing) trees have dominated the earth for hundreds of millions of years. Carbon Age forests were made up of conifers. Conifers survived the geological disaster 250 million years ago that paved the way for the age of the dinosaurs. When the impact of a meteorite wiped out the dinosaurs, conifers lived on. Today, conifers dominate major regions of the earth — the combined weight of all the people on earth is less than that of the conifers in Jämtland County in central Sweden!
It seems conifers managed as early as 300 million years ago to create an extremely successful genetic make-up that has allowed them to dominate the globe, but what does it look like? All conifers have twelve chromosomes, but they are extremely large: a cell from a spruce or pine has seven times as much DNA as a human cell does. Why do conifers have so much DNA? Does it have to do with their having thrived for millions of years on earth, and do they really have more genes than you and I, or are their genes simply more ‘diluted’?
Late last year, a Swedish research group received a grant to address this puzzling issue. Swedish tree research will be completely revolutionized by mapping the genes of the spruce, enabling people to make more efficient use of raw wood material. It is thought that the finds of this research could mean achieving tree nursery material that can adapt to the very different conditions during times of climate change. It may also provide the possibility of developing genetic tests for the various properties of trees, such as the fuel value of the wood, or the trees’ frost and disease resistance, just as the mapping of the human genome has made this possible in medicine.
The group expects to spend the next four years working on this project, which is thought to be the largest project in the world to tackle the species that has the largest DNA.
Marie Stadther’s life in Coachella Valley was void of trees. In 2001, she packed up and headed north. After a drive through the majestic redwoods, she arrived in Redding, where she immersed herself in horticulture as owner of her own landscaping company and as assistant to an arborist. She is now the lead gardener for Turtle Bay’s McConnell Arboretum and Botanical Gardens. Her love of trees is a way of life, and she shares that passion with the community. Send the Tree Goddess your questions at email@example.com.
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