The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded a $3 million grant to a team of scientists at North Carolina State University's College of Natural Resources to research the breeding and genetics of the loblolly pine, one of the Southeast's most economically important tree species.
The multidisciplinary team of tree geneticists, wood chemists and tree breeders, led by Dr. Hou-min Chang, NC State professor of pulp and paper science, will work to develop the first strains of loblolly pine that can be grown quickly for specific products, such as boards and paper pulp.
Dr. Ronald Sederoff, NC State professor of forestry and one of the principal investigators for the grant, explained that the ultimate goal of the project is to domesticate the fast-growing loblolly pine. That, he said, will help the Southeast maintain its position as the world's major supplier of industrial wood, which is being challenged by wood-producing regions of the Southern Hemisphere.
Additionally, Sederoff said, the research will have environmental benefits, because raising fast-growing trees on pine plantations will mean less logging in natural forests. "Population growth in the United States and around the world is increasing the demand for wood products," he said. "Taking that wood from natural forests would result in serious deterioration of biodiversity, wildlife habitat and recreational potential. To protect natural forests and still meet the need for wood products, we have to grow more wood on less land."
The four-year grant was awarded through the USDA's new Initiative for the Future of Agriculture and Food Systems. The program was created by Congress to distribute research, extension and education competitive grants to projects addressing emerging agricultural issues, including forestry.
Dr. John Kadla, assistant professor of wood chemistry at NC State, said one of the researchers' goals is to allow Southeastern landowners - tobacco farmers looking for alternative crops, for instance - to know exactly what kind of loblolly to plant for specific uses, when the trees would need to be harvested and how much they would be worth.
"Eventually, we're going to be able to go to a small land owner and say you can grow a specific kind of tree for a specific end use, like pulp wood, board or other value-added biobased products," he said.
The research will focus on juvenile loblolly trees - those that are about 15 years old or younger - because growing high-quality trees rapidly will be critical to maintaining the global competitiveness of the U.S. forest products industry.
Juvenile loblolly wood generally has lower wood density than mature wood and contains physical characteristics that reduce the strength of the wood. The result is less-desirable wood for paper pulp plants and sawmills. The NC State researchers want to understand the genetic reasons for quality variations in juvenile loblolly pine, and to find ways to quickly and efficiently breed populations of the trees without those properties.
The work will capitalize on 45 years of selectively breeding loblolly pines by the NC State-Industry Cooperative Tree Improvement Program. Much of that work, producing trees with the desired characteristics for board and paper pulp, has taken place in cooperation with state governments and private companies.
"North Carolina is unique because NC State is one of the few places that has top-rated forest biotechnology, wood chemistry and tree propagation programs," Kadla said.
Chang's, Sederoff's and Kadla's fellow principal investigators for the grant at NC State are Dr. David O'Malley and Dr. Bailian Li, research associate professors of forestry; and Dr. Barry Goldfarb, associate professor of forestry. Chang is the Reuben B. Robertson Distinguished Professor of Pulp and Paper Science and Technology at NC State. Sederoff is the Edwin F. Conger and Distinguished University Professor of Forestry at NC State, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
The NC State scientists will collaborate on the project with bioinformatics researchers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and with scientists at the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Wisconsin. The project will include an outreach component to inform scientists and landowners about the findings, and an educational component to train scientists and other professionals in wood science and tree genetics.
The $3 million USDA grant follows other large grants NC State has earned recently to conduct research in related areas. In 1999, the university received a $4.4 million National Science Foundation grant to lead a multi-university research team sequencing and mapping the genes of the loblolly. Last year, NC State researchers were given $585,000 in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to investigate the genetic basis of variations in loblolly wood traits.