FastTRAC-ing better white spruce

Published: July 20th 2020
JDI used genomics data to select and remove from this orchard the poorest growing white spruce trees. This photo from February 2019 shows the freshly cut stumps. Photo credit: JD Irving Ltd.

JD Irving Ltd., also known as JDI, the Canadian forestry company based in New Brunswick, is leaping ahead with genomic selection, a technology that promises so much efficiency, it could eventually eclipse conventional tree breeding practices.

Josh Sherrill, JDI’s genetics and forest productivity leader, said the company’s participation in a recent research project, dubbed FastTRAC, for Fast Tests for Rating and Amelioration of Confers, with a focus on Norway and white spruce, “allowed JDI to move to the front of the pack and gain experiences with genomic selection that many industry players around the world have not benefited from.”

At the company’s six-hectare, second generation white spruce seed orchard in Parkindale, N.B., JDI has been using genomic predictions, based on diagnostic tools developed during FastTRAC, to cull what Mr. Sherrill described as “the least desirable parents” for new white spruce. “By using genomics, we were able to do this several years earlier than we normally do,” he said. The estimated time saving was eight years, compared to traditional methods that require more tree growth before field test data can be collected and analyzed.

Indeed, with genomic profiles, the genetic value of a tree can be estimated while it is still a seedling, reducing the need for field evaluation. By contrast, conventional breeding practices can require growers to wait up to 20 years before some economically and environmentally important traits can be assessed in the field. FastTRAC showed genomic selection, which can predict the breeding value of a candidate tree for many traits of interest using its genomic profile, will reduce the timeline for the selection of enhanced reforestation stock by 20 to 25 years in spruces.

Moreover, genomic predictions have enabled JDI to more reliably select trees with the best traits for industrial use and employ them more often for breeding.

“Both these applications will result in increased growth and other quality traits in the seedlings we plant,” Mr. Sherrill said. “These applications are intended to grow our wood supply for our sawmills and pulp mills. That means more jobs and economic development throughout the supply chain from the forests to the consumer.”

While genomics is not new, it is a relative newcomer to the world of forestry and to conifers in particular. “JDI had followed developments in the research and only recently, through development of genomic selection methods, has the technology advanced to the point where it could be evaluated for an applied industrial tree improvement program,“ explained Greg Adams, a forestry consultant with a long association with JDI. Essentially, he said it was the advanced state of genomic selection that piqued JDI’s interest in the project.

For more than 30 years, before entering the consultancy business, Mr. Adams ran JDI’s tree improvement program. He also represented JDI on the FastTRAC team, a research partnership that included the Canada Research Chair in Forest and Environmental Genomics at Laval University; Forest Products Innovations, the world’s largest private non-profit forest research centre;  the New Brunswick Tree Improvement Council, the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre; the Quebec Ministry of Forestry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks; and Natural Resources Canada. Funding came from Genome Canada and Génome Québec, through the Genomic Applications Partnership Program (GAPP). The province of New Brunswick was also a contributor, while  Genome Atlantic provided support and assisted with co-funding.

 “This effort was certainly among the first in North America to apply genomic selection in applied tree improvement programs,“ said Mr. Adams.

 “Tree growth rate and stem quality are important traits in selection programs and are easily assessed in field tests,” he said. “Other traits, such as wood properties and pest resistance, are more difficult and expensive to assess but also important for long-term value. Genomic selection offers significant potential to address these difficult-to-assess traits.”

“The FastTRAC project was highly successful,” said Mr. Adams.  Originally, the plan was to test genomic selection results against available data as a proof-of concept. The results proved so encouraging, the research effort expanded to include the New Brunswick Tree Improvement Council’s entire second-generation white spruce population. “This provided growth and wood quality predictions used in orchard management and brought increasing efficiency of breeding to the next cycle,” said Mr. Adams. “Further to this, genotyping from the FastTRAC project has also been used to build genomic selection models related to spruce budworm resistance.” The genotyping process examines DNA for variants tied to the unique traits of an organism.

As an industry participant, JDI helped shape the project’s goals to have practical application for the forestry business. The company also supplied some financial backing, and most importantly, provided access to several decades worth of genetic data. “The field data is essential to any program hoping to integrate molecular genetics into applied tree improvement, Mr. Adams stressed.

Back at JDI’s white spruce seed orchard, where Mr. Sherrill oversees the application of the genomic tools for genomic selection developed by FastTRAC, he said, “We implemented quickly but have proceeded carefully. In the seed orchard, we could have removed more parents but we were conservative. As we gain confidence in genomic selection, we will rely more heavily on it and make increasingly bolder decisions.”

He said, “Currently we are working on validation of the FastTRAC models using field data. This will help us to adjust our level of reliance over time and make improvement to the methodologies.”

The results of the first FastTRAC project are “quite encouraging,” he said, and “the usefulness of the information means that breeding programs will be different going forward. The new normal for breeding will be genomics-informed, and as we build confidence there is the potential for breeding to be genomics-led.”

In the meantime, a follow up proposal, FastTRAC 2, is shaping up to focus on genomic selection for red and black spruce, conifers that JDI also plant and count on for raw material. The two species are the most planted in eastern Canada.

Due to the success of the first FastTRAC, the new proposal has attracted greater investment from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia tree improvement participants. FastTRAC 2 proposes to create genomics technologies that can stock future tree plantations with seedlings capable of withstanding the effects of climate change and minimizing the impact on Atlantic Canada’s forestry sector.

Taking the long view of genetic selection, Mr. Sherrill says that “beyond creating predictive models for additional species, we expect there will be opportunities to refine and build on existing methods and practices. For instance, our rich genetic marker data could be used to better understand genetic diversity and help us optimally manage our breeding populations.”

The FastTRAC team was named the 2019 recipient (Collaboration category) of the prestigious Canadian Forest Service Merit Award. Congratulations to the team on this recognition!