Mississippi State University researchers are announcing their identification of the gene that controls the first-time and annual flowering of trees.
The breakthrough in pinpointing what is known as "FT2" could have significant environmental and economic implications. The findings recently were published in the international journal, The Plant Cell.
Funded through the National Science Foundation and Mississippi State's Life Sciences and Biotechnology Institute, the work was conducted by collaborating scientists in the university's departments of forestry and biochemistry and molecular biology. Their investigation focused on unknown genetic, environmental and physiological factors that control the development process of trees.
"Many trees do not normally produce flowers at early ages, which can be as long as seven to 20 years," said assistant professor Cetin Yuceer of the Forest and Wildlife Research Center.
"Agricultural crops have been domesticated for thousands of years, because they can produce flowers after several months from seed sowing," he explained. "Trees in modern forestlands are almost completely undomesticated, which is attributable to the lengthy period between seed germination and the first reproductive bud formation."
Yuceer said he and his colleagues found the FT2 gene transcript to be rare during the juvenile stage of a tree's development, but more prevalent as the plant becomes older.
"When we inserted FT2 into juvenile poplar trees, the increased transcript level caused them to begin producing flowers within several months instead of years," Yuceer said. "Of course, this saves a tremendous amount of time to get the first seeds and could revolutionize tree domestication."
The MSU findings could increase economic opportunities by accelerating tree breeding practices for producing not only stronger and faster-growing trees that are resistant to wind, disease and insects, but also desirable tree chemicals--among them cellulose, a major component of the gasoline-substitute ethanol, he observed.
Additionally, the team's FT2 discovery has important implications in seed and fruit production.
"Once trees become mature, they begin producing flower buds during a short period of time each year, generally in spring," said team colleague Chuan-Yu Hsu, a postdoctoral researcher. "The FT2 gene transcript is produced abundantly in leaves prior to flower bud production in leaf axils."
Hsu said the findings are expected to benefit both forest and wildlife environments. As an example, she cited the problem of erratic acorn production that often results in natural regeneration failure in oak forests.
"Years without bumper acorn crops require more management for supplemental nutrition for deer and other wildlife," Hsu said. "As we find specific environmental or cultural factors affecting the production of FT2 transcript, we can directly influence acorn production, therefore saving time and money."