Everything that we make from oil could also be made from wood. However, despite the vital importance and vast potential of forests, we still cannot answer the most fundamental question: What makes a tree a tree? Nevertheless, comparative genomics have in recent years dramatically increased our understanding of the evolutionary history and architecture of plant genomes, and revealed a remarkable difference in genome size and composition. From these studies we know that gene content varies comparatively little – even between trees and non-tree species – and changes in gene regulation have now emerged as the primary explanation for the evolution of woody plants. In this project, we aim to model the regulatory networks orchestrating the differentiation of stem cells into woody tissues in order to understand the wood formation process in several angiosperms and gymnosperms – the two tree-containing plant lineages separated by over 200 million years of evolution. We will compare regulatory networks to identify specific regulatory mechanisms that separate the two tree lineages from each other and trees from non-tree plants, and we will experimentally test some of the most interesting findings. Modeling approaches such as machine learning are often hampered by the vast number of interacting genes giving rise to complex biological systems. Here we will generate extensive data set on gene regulation and integrate these with prior knowledge in order to infer and align networks across species. This will require highly interdisciplinary research including the development of new computational frameworks and the application of advanced molecular profiling techniques in non-model organisms. This project will deliver both mechanistic insight into the evolution of gene regulation in angiosperm and gymnosperm tree species as well as conserved regulatory mechanisms of great interest to academic researchers and forest industry alike.
Project leader: Torgeir Rhodén Hvidsten
Institution: FAKULTET FOR KJEMI, BIOTEKNOLOGI OG MATVITENSKAP