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Scientists aim to unwrap conifer’s DNA

NEW YORK — To millions of people, the Christmas tree is a cheerful sight. To scientists who decipher the DNA codes of plants and animals, it’s a monster.

We’re talking about the conifer, the umbrella term for cone-bearing trees like the spruce, fir, pine, cypress, and cedar. Apart from their Yuletide popularity, they play big roles in the lumber industry and in healthy forest ecosystems.

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Scientists would love to identify the billions of building blocks that make up the DNA of a conifer, a process known as sequencing its genome. Such analysis is a standard tool of biology, and doing it for conifers could reveal genetic secrets useful for basic science, breeding, and forest management.

But the conifer genome is huge. And like a big price tag on a wished-for present, that has put it out of reach.

Now, as Christmas approaches, it appears the conifer’s role as a genetic Grinch may be ending.

In recent months, scientific teams in the United States and Canada have released preliminary, patchy descriptions of conifer genomes. And a Swedish team plans to follow suit soon in its quest for the Norway spruce.

‘‘Until just a few years ago, the idea of sequencing even a single conifer genome seemed impossible,’’ said John Mac­Kay, who codirects a multi-
institution Canadian project that is tackling the white spruce. New technologies changed that, he said.

How big is a conifer genome? Consider the 80-foot Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center in New York. It’s a Norway spruce, so its genome is six times bigger than that of anybody skating below it.
Other conifer genomes are even larger.

Nobody expects a perfect, finished conifer genome anytime soon. MacKay and others say that reaching that goal would probably require some advances in technology. But even partial versions can help tree breeders and basic scientists, researchers say.

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