New Castle News

December 14, 2012

Our Opinion: Genetic mapping of conifers may help strengthen species

By Staff
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — When it comes to holiday decorations, it’s hard to beat a brightly colored Christmas tree.

There’s something about a decorated evergreen tree that’s sure to bring special cheer to the season. At night, driving through residential areas, trees in the windows are always welcome sights.

Christmas trees — at least the real ones — are essentially conifers of different varieties. Typically, they are fir trees, short-needled varieties that allow the decorations to shine through. And many trees are bred to allow the green needles to last throughout the Christmas season.

But when certain people look at evergreen trees, they see something in addition to a symbol of life and festive times. They see complex genetics.

It turns out that conifers have what’s considered a massive genetic code. Every living thing on Earth is composed of genes, but there are obvious differences.

Human beings are the dominant species on Earth, and have about 23,000 genes. It’s estimated conifers have about the same amount, but their functioning genes also come with considerably more DNA material that seems to have no purpose. And mapping all of it becomes a complicated task.

Why so much information in the genome of evergreens? One likely reason is their age in evolutionary terms. Humans have been on the planet a few million years. The history of conifers goes back about a billion. It seems you pick up a lot of genetic baggage over that time.

For genetic researchers, weeding through all of this material is a daunting process. However, recent advances make it easier to process and analyze DNA material. In human medicine, these technological gains are expected to allow every individual to have his or her specific genetic code mapped. In theory, this will allow medical personnel to assess certain health risks and the likelihood a given individual could develop a particular disease.

The mapping of a genome for assorted conifers also has something to do with health — the health of trees and forests. The goal here involves identifying which trees have the best disease resistance, and which ones might be most capable of adapting to climate change.

Toward this end, The Associated Press reported recently that researchers in the United States and Canada, as well as in Sweden, have made advances in mapping the genetic sequences of assorted conifers. But while they are far from a final cataloging of genes — that task may require additional technological breakthroughs — it’s believed the information being revealed now will assist foresters and other growers of evergreens.

In short, genetic mapping may not be able to guarantee a white Christmas, but it should help to ensure there will be evergreens around regardless of the weather.