Forests of silver birch stretch across Europe, and they are a wonder to behold: stands of slender, white-barked trees sheltering vast swathes of earth.But these woodlands also have value beyond their beauty: they are an economic asset, generating raw material for papermaking, construction, furniture-building, and more. A new study illuminates the evolutionary history of birch, a tree that has not been studied much by scientists despite its commercial value. "Birch is one of the major trees for forest products in the Northern Hemisphere. Others, like spruce, pine, and poplar, all have genome sequences, but birch did not -- until now," says University at Buffalo biologist Victor Albert, PhD, who co-led the Finnish-funded project with Dr. Jaakko Kangasjärvi, Dr. Ykä Helariutta, Dr. Petri Auvinen, and Dr. Jarkko Salojärvi of the University of Helsinki in Finland. Dr. Helariutta is also a professor at the University of Cambridge. "We sequenced about 80 individuals of one species, Betula pendula, the silver birch," says Dr. Kangasjärvi. "We sampled populations of this species throughout its range, so up and down Finland, down to Germany, over to Norway and Ireland, and all the way up to Siberia." By analyzing the 80 genomes sequenced, the team was able to identify genetic mutations that may be of interest to industry, including mutations that may affect how well birch trees grow and respond to light at different latitudes and longitudes and under different environmental conditions. The research could be a starting point for breeding trees that better meet the needs of various industries. "What makes a birch tree hardy in different environments?
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