ATHENS, Ga. -- Illegal and socially taboo among humans, inbreeding is common, even natural between trees. Still, it isn't without consequences: Inbred trees grow and develop slowly, they're often deformed and many die suddenly and inexplicably before reaching maturity.
A team of scientists at the University of Georgia and the New Zealand Forest Research Institute have discovered why. Using inbred Monterey pines as a model, they identified seven genes that can cause the pine to die, far more than they suspected. It's the first time researchers have isolated lethal genes in any tree species.
The research was funded by the New Zealand Fund for Public Good Science, the USA Collaborative Science Programme, the New Zealand Lottery Board and by Georgia McIntire-Stennis funds. Findings were published earlier this year in the journal Theoretical and Applied Genetics.
"Death is one of the most common results of inbreeding," said Bruce Bongarten, a forest geneticist in UGA's Warnell School of Forest Resources. "In selectively breeding trees, the idea is to cross closely related family members to increase the frequency of desirable traits, like fast growth, disease resistance or high yields. Unfortunately, it also increases the effects of harmful and lethal genes."
Mating between close relatives increases the chances that the same "bad" genes will be provided by both parents and expressed in the offspring. Hemophilia in the British royal family is a well-known example in humans. Few inbred trees survive to reproduce in a natural forest setting. In selective breeding programs, it's just too costly to breed, plant and nurture trees that grow poorly or ultimately die.
Identifying the genes is the first step in purging them from a breeding
population. It sounds simple, but Bongarten said it's complicated by the fact
that not all lethal genes cause death 100 percent of the time. In this study,
the team found
Contact: Helen Fosgate
University of Georgia