Just as we’re hearing the news of the first functional genomics discoveries, Dr. Ron Sederoff, distinguished university professor and director of NC State’s Forest Biotechnology Laboratory (FBL), is already pushing toward what the world needs next. “It is now time to use what we already know of genomics to accomplish economically important social goals,” says Sederoff. “Researchers are already using many genomic sciences discoveries for applications in human, animal and crop health. It’s time for us to work harder on environmental health.”

For example, Sederoff says, “If we can bioengineer fast-growing, high-yield trees with other specialty features and grow them as crops for human needs, we can largely leave the natural forests alone. It’s doable and it will be profitable in many ways.” He cautions, however, that any crop of genetically modified trees would also need to be engineered to restrict its ability to cross- pollinate, thereby preserving the genetic integrity of existing forests.

Many environmentally important uses of genomics discoveries are subjects of intense development in other programs at NC State: rescuing endangered species; bioremediating waste; encouraging biodiversity, and protecting ecosystems. Sederoff is proposing a full frontal attack on the big picture of deforestation, habitat destruction, and climate change through a rapid acceleration of the “domestication” of trees, or the modification of trees to solve environmental problems.

Domestication of trees is not a new idea to forest biotechnologists, but most agree that the process could be rapidly accelerated with appropriate funding from federal and state governments. “It took thousands of years for humans to domesticate plants through the use of plant breeding,” Sederoff says. “We can’t wait that long to preserve the world’s natural forests.”

As one way of speeding things along, Sederoff has teamed with Dr. Hou-Min Chang and several other NC State researchers on a newly granted $3 million U.S. Department of Agriculture project. If successful, researchers will use what is already known about the pine tree genome to improve the loblolly pine to produce more wood on less land in less time.

The FBL, which largely focuses on the pine tree genome, is the oldest and one of the largest tree genomics groups in the world. It is the only large-scale tree genomics project sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

In July 2000, the FBL moved to a new $3 million facility, co-locating with other major genomics research and service laboratories. Within the time it took to upfit and equip the new building, the FBL and collaborating researchers had parlayed the promise of the new laboratory and its partnerships into a three-year, $4.4-million grant from NSF.

The laboratory’s research group, which now consists of 41 faculty and staff members, post-docs, graduate students and technicians, has published 80 papers in leading scientific journals, authored a book and received six patents. Having attracted more than $18 million in external funding since its inception in 1985, the FBL has a $2.3-million budget this year. It has developed one of the world’s most advanced systems for genetic mapping using amplified DNA fragment technology and automatic DNA sequencers.

“It’s our responsibility as a leader in research to move our results into applications as rapidly as possible,” says J.B. Jett, associate dean for research in the College of Natural Resources. “The excellence of our forest biotechnology researchers is putting us in reach of the goal Ron and others have laid out.”

For more information, please visit http://www2.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/project/forestbiotech/