Molecular Breeding

What makes branches develop? What makes one tree grow straighter than another? The answer lies in the genes.

Understanding the biochemistry and the genetics of how and why plants grow the way they do is the first step towards tailoring plantation forests for specific purposes using molecular breeding techniques.

These techniques have been applied in agriculture for many years, but researchers at Scion now lead the world in applying them to radiata pine.

Our key capabilities

Underpinning these technologies, we have capability in statistical analysis of genomic data. See the Virtual Institute of Statistical Genetics (VISG) website for more details.

The molecular toolkit

A key technique in molecular breeding is marker aided selection. Scion has developed DNA markers that can be used to identify genes controlling traits such as wood density or straightness. Once a marker is associated with a particular trait it becomes very easy to identify whether that trait is present when breeding new commercial tree species and focus effort on progeny containing the desirable characteristic.

Genetic fingerprinting
allows tree breeders to confirm whether progeny come from specific male and female parents. As a practical example, before propagating thousands of trees, genetic fingerprinting can be used to confirm that inadvertent contamination with the wrong pollen has not occurred in a breeding nursery.

Genetic modification (also referred to as genetic engineering) is another of many breeding techniques that can be used to improve the productivity and quality of commercially grown species.

Genetic modification allows plant breeders to introduce a single, clearly identified desirable trait into a breeding population where it is not normally available. For example, radiata pine has no inherent insect resistance, so chemical sprays must be used.  By introducing a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringensis, which is naturally hostile to specific insects, growers would no longer need to use sprays against pests that have the potential to devastate our plantation forests.

Scion believes New Zealand would benefit greatly from genetically modified trees and through ongoing discussion and education is working to create greater public understanding and confidence in this potentially valuable technology.

Maori consultation

The Maori advisory group Te Aroturuki and Scion are together developing a new website aimed at improving dialogue between iwi and scientists, particularly on issues where there is likely to be debate. The web-based toolkits provide information about tikanga Maori ‑ protocols, values and language ‑ and useful ideas about how research proposals can deliver benefits for Maori.

Commercial opportunities

The new wave of interest in forestry worldwide is being driven by carbon, bioenergy and biomaterials. Commercial opportunities from Scion’s molecular breeding programme range from specific wood properties e.g. greater density, volume or dimensional stability, through to trees tailor-made to meet environmental goals such as greater carbon sequestration.