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Feature

Many trees on a hill in the distance.

Minnesota's forests face a variety of threats, from insect invasion to white pine blister. Researchers in the U's tree-breeding program are studying ways to make trees disease resistent.

Long live Minnesota trees

By Pauline Oo

From eNews, December 16, 2004

A strong tree grows faster, resists diseases, and produces high-quality wood. Growing strong trees is a goal of the University's 50-year-old tree-breeding program at its north Central Research and Outreach Center in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.

"We're the only group in the state looking at issues of genetic resource management as it relates to forest tree species," says Andrew David, associate professor of forest resources, who coordinates the work in the lab. "We breed trees using conventional methods--crossing one tree with another and collecting the seed to improve growth rate, disease resistance, wood quality, and stem form. [In our tree-breeding program,] we also look at how to proactively conserve our genetic resources. In other words, the things we can do to help ensure that genetic diversity continues to exist not only in our breeding populations but in our natural populations."

On Wednesday, December 15, David and his colleagues welcomed state legislators and other visitors to their new forest genetics and silviculture lab. (Silviculture means the care and tending of trees). The Minnesota Legislature approved funding for the construction of the 900-square-foot lab, as well as some land for testing seedlings. Currently, the U's tree-breeding population comprises seven forest tree species--white spruce, black spruce, red pine, jack pine, white pine, aspen, and European larch--and is spread across 1,000 acres of land by the research center.

"The state recognizes the importance of what we do and the fact that we are located in the wood basket of Minnesota," says David. Grand Rapids is located in north central Minnesota and serves as the southern gateway to the Chippewa National Forest.

David says the lab allows for greater research capabilities and speedier completion of work. In the past, raw material was sent to a lab on the Twin Cities campus in St. Paul for testing.

"We can screen a tree for diseases when we walk through our field, making inferences [if it has a disease] back to its parents," explains David. "But this lab should give us the ability to screen some of the parents before we cross them and put the seedlings out. We can also measure wood and find out which ones grow faster, but until now, we didn't really have the capacity to measure which ones produce the best wood--the higher quality wood."

Minnesota's forests face a variety of threats, from insect invasion to white pine blister rust and ever-increasing demands for the benefits forests provide. The state's $6.9 billion forest products industry is the fourth largest manufacturing sector in Minnesota.

"We probably have the most advanced tree-breeding program in the Great Lakes states," says David. "We're into our second generation [of testing trees], and in the next few years, we'll be ready to make third-generation crosses."

The University participates in two tree-breeding cooperatives with industry and government: the Minnesota Tree Improvement Cooperative and the Aspen-Larch Genetics Cooperative. Collectively these relationships involve 30 partners who seek to increase the quantity and quality of timber yields in the region.

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