In mid-February, good news was brought with the end of the first stage of the ForESTs project, which provided for the partial sequencing of the genome of eucalyptus trees (Eucalyptus spp), financed by FAPESP in partnership with four companies from the sector of paper, pulp, chipboard and laminates (Votorantim, Ripasa, Suzano and Duratex). The first was the end of the work on this stage one month before the expected time limit, after 110,000 ESTs (expressed sequence tags, fragments of the genetic code that help to identify the genes) had been sequenced.
The second, more important, was the discovery of 6,800 new genes, never before located in other world-wide projects for sequencing genomes, amid the 27,500 genes found with the help of the ESTs. “The majority of the new genes must be specific to the eucalyptus”, comments Helaine Carrer, from USP’s Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture, who coordinates the project, which uses the network of 20 laboratories of FAPESP’s Agronomic and Environmental Genomes (AEG) project. “We consulted the international databases and did not find them in the genome of other organisms”. In ForESTs’ initial stage, the Foundation set aside US$ 530,000 for the project, and the consortium, R$ 500,000.
Precisely for there being no information available on the new genes, these almost 7,000 sequences capable of codifying proteins will be examined with doubled attention in the second stage of ForESTs, which should last for three years, with a planned investment of over R$ 1 million on the part of the companies. In the quest for economically important genes for the forestry industry, which may be useful for increasing productivity and reducing costs in the processes for producing pulp and paper, the researchers will, from now onwards, rifle through all the genetic material of the eucalyptus that has already been mapped.
To do so, they will use a number of techniques intended to cast light on the function of genes, amongst them the use of the so-called microarrays or chips of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), tiny special slides on which thousands of genes are put. This methodology makes it possible to study simultaneously the expression pattern of a genes set in the most varied situations. In other words, to see which genes are, or are not, used (and with what intensity) during the development of a living being. “Nowadays, one works more and more with the notion that it is the action of a group of genes – and not just of one gene – that determines the traits of a person, an animal, or a plant”, says Helaine.
In the case of the eucalyptus, the use of DNA chips should be useful in looking for the genes involved, for example, in the chemical syntheses that run the production of cellulose fibers, the paper raw material, and of lignin, a substance that is deposited on the plant cells walls and which makes wood resistant. According to the type of lignin, which may account for up to 25% of the composition of the wood, the extraction of cellulose from the eucalyptus can be easy or complicated, expensive or cheap.
“The genes that work in this processes are already known”, explains Helaine. In this second stage of the project, genes that can make the eucalyptus more resistant to diseases, to water scarcity and to cold should also be studied. These are just some of the approaches that will be tested by the members of the ForESTs project, with the intention of finding ways of improving the pulp, paper and laminated panel industry productivity, which employ 150,000 persons in the country, have a turnover of something like 4% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and accounts for around 8% of annual exports. With time, other options may take shape, as research advances.
As soon as they discover gene groups related to productivity improvements, the researchers will let the companies know, which will then look for these genes in the plants already cultivated in nurseries, and select the varieties most suited to their purposes. The scientists do not rule out the possibility of producing genetically modified species, although this is not their primordial objective. To ascertain whether a gene introduced to the plant has been incorporated and is expressed, it should not be necessary to wait for the eucalyptus to grow, which takes seven years on average. In the laboratory, a few months after the alteration to the genome, it is already possible to determine, with the use of molecular markers, whether a gene introduced is manifesting itself in the plant in formation.
Being nimble and efficient is important in a project like ForESTs. Even because there is great international competition in the area of genetic improvement of the eucalyptus tree amongst the pulp and paper companies. According to Mathias Kirst, a Brazilian researcher with the Forest Biotechnology Group of North Carolina University, in the United States, who visited Esalq last month, a venture led by a company from New Zealand has already sequenced 500,000 ESTs of the genome of this tree. This result is almost five times larger than the São Paulo project. “This data will never be made public, because the work was carried out by a private company”, Kirst comments. To date, the team of researchers under his coordination has sequenced only 12,000 sequences of the eucalyptus genome.
Also in February, two days after the announcement of the conclusion of ForESTs’ first stage, the federal government launched the Genolyptus Project, a nationwide venture with the intention of researching ways for genetically improving eucalyptus. A group of 12 companies, seven universities and the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) is taking part in the project, which is forecast to last five years, in its first stage.
The initial budget for the federal project is R$ 12 million, 70% of which will be financed by the Ministry of Science and Technology, with resources from the Green-Yellow Fund, and 30% by the companies. In plantations scattered all over the national territory, the researchers from the Genolyptus network intend to study the best ways of increasing productivity, reducing pollution by industries in the forestry sector, and creating plants that are more resistant and suited to different uses.
ForESTs: Eucalyptus Genome Sequencing Project Consortium (nº 01/10251-3); Modality Partnership for Technological Innovation (PITE) program; Coordinator Helaine Carrer – Esalq/USP; Investment R$ 500.000,00 and US$ 530.000,00