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Growing better trees faster

Copyright: James Brooks on Flickr by CC 2.0
News from: University of Oxford

University of Oxford announce new forestry collaboration.

A new University of Oxford collaboration called ‘Sitka Spruced’ could significantly increase the economic productivity of one of the UK’s largest crop yields, the Sitka spruce conifer tree.

Using advanced genomic testing, scientists from the University of Oxford will work in partnership with The University of Edinburgh and Forest Research (an agency of the Forestry Commission) to identify rare individuals which combine fast growth-rate with good timber quality to improve the economics of Sitka spruce plantations in the UK.

UK forestry relies heavily on Sitka spruce as its primary timber species. Although native to the Pacific North West, over 35 million trees of this species are planted in the UK each year. It is the third largest crop by area of cultivation in the UK (after wheat and barley), and accounts for around £1 billion of the industry’s £2 billion annual revenue. The tree is fast growing in the moist climate of western and northern Britain, producing a versatile white wood with uses from paper making to construction grade material used in buildings. It takes around 40 years from planting before most of the Sitka spruce trees are harvested, and only a proportion of those trees make the stronger, higher value construction grades.

Using a new breeding technique called ‘genomic selection’ the team hope to accurately identify - at a very early age, fast growing trees, which will meet the higher construction specifications needed to build our houses. If successful, the outcomes of this research are set to significantly improve the economics of future Sitka spruce plantations.

The project will scan hundreds of trees for variations in their DNA make-up and then associate those variations with fast growing trees that produce superior timber. This will enable scientists to screen the DNA of other trees to identify at a very young age those they predict will grow quickly and yield higher quality timber. Genomics is not GM (Genetic Modification) but instead, exploits the huge variation that occurs naturally within the species. 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 one of the few forestry research projects to be awarded funding by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). The new initiative aims to overcome the significant challenges facing the industry, by using genomics to support accelerated tree breeding and maintenance of genetic diversity.

Professor John MacKay, Project lead and Wood Professor of Forest Science at University of Oxford, said: "I am really excited to be part of such a research landmark, breeding to increase the economic return of Sitka spruce. The funding from BBSRC is testament to the project’s long-term value.

"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."

Copyright: junaidrao on Flickr by CC 2.0
#Earth Staring up the centre of the Three Sisters - 3 sitka spruce that are some of the tallest trees in Canada. Taken in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, Vancouver Island, BC. Copyright: junaidrao on Flickr by CC 2.0

Professor Melanie Welham, BBSRC Chief Executive, said: "BBSRC receives few forestry-related research proposals and is pleased to be able to fund this project on the genetic improvement of Sitka spruce in partnership with industry. We are keen to build on the legacy of the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Initiative in which BBSRC led a multi-funder consortium with DEFRA, ESRC, the Forestry Commission, NERC and the Scottish Government."

Sitka Spruced is part-funded by the British forestry and wood processing industries. Dr Steve Lee of Forest Research said "The financial contribution of the forestry and wood processing industries is a very significant support to this project funded by BBSRC and we are happy to be working closely with representatives from seed merchants, nurseries, forest management companies, a breeding co-operative and a sawmill. The possible impact from the outputs of Sitka Spruced could be huge and it’s encouraging to know industry is fully behind this new development".

Spruce-Up, a Canadian sister initiative will run alongside its UK counterpart allowing both projects to leverage and draw on each other’s international resources and compare genomic information. The knowledge base created as a result will have long term benefits and support future forest research initiatives and understanding.


Notes to editors

The Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences Division (MPLS) is one of four academic divisions at the University of Oxford, representing the non-medical sciences. Oxford is one of the world’s leading universities for science, and MPLS is at the forefront of scientific research across a wide range of disciplines. Research in the mathematical, physical and life sciences at Oxford was rated the best in the UK in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) assessment. MPLS received £133 million in research income in 2014/15.


BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by government, BBSRC invested £473 million in world-class bioscience, people and research infrastructure in 2015-16. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

More information about BBSRC, our science and our impact.
More information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes.

Header image copyright: James Brooks on Flickr by CC 2.0.


UK Research and Innovation Media Office

Tags: fundamental bioscience forestry research trees biology crops press release