Scientists use Loblolly pine seedling from New Kent to unlock largest genetic code ever sequenced

RICHMOND - The Virginia Department of Forestry announced Monday that a team of scientists from across the nation has decoded the genome of a Virginia Loblolly pine tree.

With 22 billion base pairs, this is the largest genome ever sequenced. In comparison, the human genome has 3 billion base pairs.

Led by Dr. David Neale, professor of plant sciences at the University of California-Davis, the team used tissue from a single pine seedling obtained from the Virginia Department of Foresry and broke down the tree’s DNA into smaller, more manageable data pieces and analyzed them with a super-computer.

The team then re-assembled the pieces, figured out which genes were present, where they are on the genome, and what they do. This new approach, developed at the University of Maryland, enabled researchers to perform such a large and complex genome sequencing.

“It’s a huge genome,” Neale said in a press release. “But the challenge isn’t just collecting all the sequence data. The problem is assembling that sequence into order. The contribution of a loblolly pine tree was critically important, not only for the genome sequencing but moreso for all those who follow and will now have completely open access to data and germplasm resources.”

The Loblolly pine, grown in the orchard at the Forestry Department's New Kent Forestry Center, was selected for sequencing because of its broad distribution, economic value and long history of genetic research.

Jerre Creighton, VDOF’s research program coordinator, said “Loblolly pine is the most common tree species in Virginia and the most commercially important tree in the United States. It’s the primary source of pulpwood (used to make paper) and sawtimber (lumber).  Today, Loblolly pine is being developed as a potential feedstock for the emerging biofuel industry.”

The results of this research is expected to help scientists breed improved varieties of Loblolly pines, some of which will be more resistant to pathogens, such as fusiform rust – the most damaging disease of southern pines.

“The possibilities are endless now that we know the Loblolly pine genome,” Creighton said.

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