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Poplar DNA code cracked -- a step in combating global warming?

Ghent - Forests cover 30% of the world's land area, house two thirds of life on earth, and are responsible for 90% of the biomass on dry land. So, the impact of trees on our daily life is enormous. Now, an international consortium - which includes researchers from the Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) at Ghent University - has succeeded in deciphering the first tree genome, that of the poplar. Gaining knowledge of the poplar DNA is an important step in the research into 'tree-specific genes', which can be used to make trees even better air purifiers, to have them grow more quickly, or to make them easier to process into paper.

The poplar as model organism

One can hardly overstate the importance of trees as providers of clean air and energy, or as raw material for furniture, building materials, and other implements. A great many properties found in trees are not found in other plants - like their abilities to provide large quantities of wood, to synchronize their growth with the seasons, and to adapt themselves to changing environmental conditions. They have these vital properties, because they must be able to survive for many years in the same location.

Knowledge of the genome of the poplar (Populus trichocarpa) allows researchers to look for the genes - DNA codes for properties - that are specific to trees. Thus, the poplar - with the relatively limited size of its genome - serves as a model organism for trees. Populus trichocarpa has in fact 'only' 520 million base pairs (the DNA building blocks), which is about 50 times fewer than a pine tree. Then again, the poplar has four times as many DNA as Arabidopsis, a model plant whose genome was deciphered four years ago.

In May 2002, the international consortium set to work to determine the poplar's genome. To do this, they used a female poplar from the banks of the Nisqually River in Washington state (USA). The researchers needed just over two years to de
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Contact: Sooike Stoops
sooike.stoops@vib.be
32-9-244-66-11
VIB, Flanders Interuniversity Institute of Biotechnology
22-Sep-2004


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