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Research Findings Could Impact Tree Breeding Strategies

Spotlight On:

Quentin Cronk
University of British Columbia
Department of Botany

According to the Natural Resources Canada 2012 Annual Report, Canada’s forest sector accounts for nearly 50% of the economic base of more than 200 communities across the country. With this in mind, research results that could help Canada’s tree breeding community can be as valuable a resource as the trees themselves.

Quentin Cronk’s lab at the University of British Columbia’s Biodiversity Research Centre is contributing to this critical pool of knowledge. Cronk’s lab integrates comparative genomics, molecular developmental biology and evolutionary biology to study plant form. They look at how different morphologies evolve in plants, as well as the functional significance of morphological differences between species. The main model organisms for these studies include the Leguminosae (floral morphology) and black cottonwood, Populus trichocarpa (adaptive evolution of trees).

In collaboration with Shawn Mansfield and Carl Douglas (also at UBC), Cronk’s research team, led by bioinformatics post-doctoral research fellow Charles Hefer, is focused on the characterization of genetic variation in poplar species adapted to different geographical ranges in Canada. Current research projects focus on adaptive traits related to biomass production and growth, and also traits related to biofuel production.

The results from this research will provide an unprecedented amount of information to the forest tree breeding community, enabling it to adjust programs to select for economically feasible (growth and biomass production) and environmentally friendly (biofuel traits) traits in poplar. This translates into a direct benefit to the Canadian economy, especially for those 200 communities who rely on the forest sector as a key employment and resource base.

Behind the scenes, WestGrid and Compute Canada’s resources are being used to conduct genome sequencing of several hundred Poplar genomes. Cronk’s group has already analyzed a large proportion of their targeted samples, but is now looking to perform memory-intensive de-novo assemblies of more distantly related Poplar species. In addition to powerful computing power, Cronk’s group also requires data storage capabilities to host critical results achieved from the sequencing assemblies.

“This research will not be possible without WestGrid and Compute Canada infrastructure due to the high cost of especially large memory machines and the prohibitive cost of storing large amount of genome sequence data for the duration of the project,” said Cronk.

Research in the lab is funded by the Discovery Grants program of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and Genome Canada.

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