Forest genomics and molecular breeding
Research on the genetic improvement of trees in Canada has been ongoing for 50 years. Just like natural populations, however, breeding populations remain genetically diverse. During the first few decades, we were mainly interested in growth and adaptation traits.
The emphasis of our more recent activities has been on the characteristics and properties of wood and fibre. Our research team has conducted a series of genetic studies on wood characteristics in white spruce, black spruce, Norway spruce and eastern white pine, often in collaboration with other research groups. Using genetic association studies, we subsequently were able to identify four different genetic markers directly associated with mature wood density in white spruce. By selecting and breeding trees that carry these markers in their DNA, we estimate being able to achieve a 5% genetic gain in wood density. We are currently working to identify other markers of candidate genes in spruce related to significant economic and adaptive traits (such as wood quality, fibre quality and growth rate) that will further the study of conifer genomes in general and increase our ability to select trees at a younger age. Our recent activities have also allowed us to identify a new series of genetic markers that can explain a significant proportion of the variation seen in 10 spruce fibre attributes.
In conjunction with our genetic association studies, we are also testing a genomic selection approach that consists of estimating the overall effect of markers on the genetic make-up of trees rather than the effect of each marker individually. Results to date show that even in large breeding populations, genomic selection can produce higher gains per time unit than the traditional method based on genetic test results. This success represents a significant step forward in the development of marker-aided selection for conifers in Canada.
We have carried out over 100 genetic tests in southern Quebec over the last 50 years. Many of our provenance tests involve material moved from north to south; this makes it possible perform tests that simulate, to some extent, the effect of global warming on tree growth. These tests are therefore very useful in estimating the potential effect of global climate change on local forests.
The conservation of genetic resources is one of the cornerstones of sustainable management for our forests. We also contribute to this important sustainability component by maintaining a seed bank with over 7,000 seed lots and a pollen bank for six conifer species.
To ensure continuity of the data generated by our research activities, we have created an Internet-accessible database for the ultimate benefit of future researchers.