Lab Canada

Scientists map mega genomes of spruce species

Vancouver, BC – In two studies, Canadian and Swedish scientists have released genome sequences of two of the most economically important forest trees in the world. The genomic maps are expected to revolutionize how forest industry policymakers and researchers manage the multi-billion-dollar spruce-tree forest sector.

At 20-30 billion base-pairs and up to 10 times larger than the human genome, the white spruce genome, published in Bioinformatics, and the Norway spruce genome, published in Nature, are also the largest genome sequence assemblies to date.

“Attempting the sequencing of such a large genome was an incredibly ambitious task and required the development of novel software and innovative use of DNA sequence technology to piece together short DNA sequences to form this massive genome, much like a large jigsaw puzzle,” says Prof. Steven Jones, senior author of the white spruce genome study.

Dr Jones is head of bioinformatics at the BC Cancer Agency Genome Sciences Centre (GSC) and a professor at both the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Vancouver.

“Many projects are now attempting to decipher genomes of economically important plants,” says Inanc Birol, lead scientist of the white spruce genome assembly. “We demonstrated a superior and less expensive method to do the job.” Dr Birol is a scientist with BC Cancer Agency’s GSC and a professor with both UBC and SFU.

“These genome sequences allow us to develop innovative tools for tree breeding, addressing economically and ecologically important targets such as insect resistance, wood quality, growth rates and adaptation to changing climate” says UBC Prof. Joerg Bohlmann, a co-author of both studies.

“A genome-based marker system could serve to reduce the time of a spruce breeding cycle from currently 25 to as short as five years, and will contribute directly to the competitiveness of the Canadian and Scandinavian forest industry,” says Prof. John MacKay of Université Laval, a co-author of both studies.

Conifers supply raw materials for the Canadian forestry industry, which accounted for $23.7 billion in Canada’s economy in 2011. Gross output of the forest sector in Sweden in 2009 was $29.7 billion.

The Bioinformatics study focusing on the White spruce genome was part of the SMarTForests Project ( and involved researchers from the Genome Sciences Centre at BC Cancer Agency, the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, Université Laval and the British Columbia Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations. The study was funded by Genome Canada, Genome British Columbia, and Genome Quebec.

The Nature study decoding the Norway spruce genome was led by scientists in Sweden and involved Canadian researchers, including Joerg Bohlmann from UBC’s Michael Smith Laboratories and John MacKay from Université Laval. Bohlmann and MacKay are the Project Leaders of the SMarTForests Project, which is developing marker systems for tree breeding. They were funded by Genome Canada, Genome British Columbia, and Genome Quebec.