Tree Code Cracked

17 September 2006
Posted by Chris Smith.

Researchers at Ghent University in Belgium have managed to crack the genetic code of the humble poplar tree, working out the sequence of all the "letters" within the tree's DNA. Around six years ago, researchers worked out the genetic code of a type of cress called Arabidopsis but this is the first tree to have its DNA sequenced. Trees are very different from other plants - for example, they produce wood and can adapt to changing environmental conditions. We also rely on trees to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and increasingly for raw materials for paper, furniture and bio-fuels. The scientists found that the Poplar has about 45,000 genes (compared to 30,000 for humans). And around a tenth of these genes are unique to the tree, meaning there is no similar gene in cress. So this group of genes could represent the key differences between trees and other plants. Now we know the sequences of all the poplar genes, scientists can start looking at their functions. In the future, this could lead to ways to genetically manipulate trees. For example, this might allow them to survive challenging environmental condition, produce more accessible biofuels or remove more carbon dioxide from the air.

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