U.S. Department of Energy provides support to help understand wood formation

BLACKSBURG, Va., Nov. 30, 2004 – A project to study genes that are important in the formation of wood will help Virginia Tech researchers understand more about some of the economically valuable trees. Eric P. Beers, associate professor of horticulture in Virginia Tech's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, directs the project.

The project will use the herbaceous plant, Arabidopsis thaliana, as a model for the study. Beers' previous research was the first to demonstrate that Arabidopsis is a good model for studying the molecular biology of wood formation. It is a small plant with a short life cycle and a great deal of information is available on it because its entire genome has been sequenced. This wealth of genomic information coupled with the variety of research techniques and other resources that have been developed for use with Arabidopsis make this small weed a powerful model. Despite its diminutive size, Arabidopsis produces wood that closely resembles that produced by commercially important trees species such as poplar and pine. Beers' project recently received a grant of $360,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Biosciences Program for a three-year period.

"The Arabidopsis genome contains about 25,000 genes. Figuring out which ones are required for a plant to produce wood is the challenge we face," Beers said.

Graduate student Chengsong Zhao measured the genes expressed in wood isolated from Arabidopsis using technology available at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech. The technology is capable of measuring expression of all 25,000 Arabidopsis genes simultaneously. With this information, Beers and his collaborator Allan W. Dickerman, research assistant professor at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, were able to reduce the number of possible wood formation genes from 25,000 possibilities down to less than 500.

"From among this relatively small number of possible wood-forming genes, we concentrate on the genes that code for transcription factors because they function as master regulators and thereby have profound impacts on developmental processes," Beers said. By identifying transcription factors that were expressed only in woody tissue, they were able to select the genes most likely to regulate wood development.

Chengsong Zhao demonstrated that one of the identified wood transcription factors showed potential as a regulator of xylem development. Xylem is the wood-forming tissue in plants.

"By further manipulating this gene and others we have identified as potential regulators of wood formation, we will have a better understanding of how plants produce this valuable commodity upon which we all rely," said Beers.

Consistently ranked by the National Science Foundation among the top 10 institutions in agricultural research, Virginia Tech's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences offers students the opportunity to learn from some of the world's leading agricultural scientists. The college's comprehensive curriculum gives students a balanced education that ranges from food and fiber production to economics to human health. The college is a national leader in incorporating technology, biotechnology, computer applications, and other recent scientific advances into its teaching program.

Founded in 1872 as a land-grant college, Virginia Tech has grown to become among the largest universities in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Today, Virginia Tech's eight colleges are dedicated to putting knowledge to work through teaching, research, and outreach activities and to fulfilling its vision to be among the top research universities in the nation. At its 2,600-acre main campus located in Blacksburg and other campus centers in Northern Virginia, Southwest Virginia, Hampton Roads, Richmond, and Roanoke, Virginia Tech enrolls more than 28,000 full- and part-time undergraduate and graduate students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries in 180 academic degree programs.