DST supports tree genomics and bioenergy initiative at UP

By Prof Zander Myburg

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) has awarded a strategic grant of R1.5 million to a team of UP researchers in support of a project to decipher the complete transcriptome (DNA sequence of all expressed genes) of a Eucalyptus tree and to produce a high-density molecular marker map of the genome of this tree. Fast-growing eucalypt trees are viewed as future bioenergy crops due to their ability to produce vast amounts of energy-rich lignocellulosic materials. They are already utilized as fibre crops for pulp, paper and cellulose in South Africa. The UP research team led by Prof. Zander Myburg in the Department of Genetics and Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI) in collaboration with the Bioinformatics and Computational Biology Unit at UP (directed by Prof. Fourie Joubert) is generating a complete catalogue of expressed genes for a South African bred eucalypt tree.

In addition to expanding their understanding of the molecular basis of wood and fibre formation in trees, this project will allow Prof. Myburg’s team to discover thousands of DNA markers that can be used for the genetic improvement of eucalypt trees in South Africa. This work is further supported by Sappi, Mondi, the Technology and Human Resources for Industry Program (THRIP) and the National Research Foundation (NRF) through the Wood and Fibre Molecular Genetics (WFMG) programme at UP.

The DST funding also provides support for the leadership role of UP in an international project to sequence the complete genome of a Eucalyptus tree. The United States Department of Energy (US-DOE) announced in 2007 that it will fund a project to sequence the genome of Eucalyptus grandis, a fast-growing forest plantation tree species which it considers a potential bioenergy crop. This will only be the second forest tree genome to be sequenced after that of the poplar tree. Prof. Myburg is the principal investigator and UP the lead partner organization for this international project.