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SpruceSEA a project for faster tree breeding

An innovative project is underway that aims to preserve valuable genetic resources an bring climate-adapted forest seeds and seedlings faster into the forest. Source: Timberbiz

The new pilot project “SpruceSEA” aims to transfer forest seedlings adapted to climate change more quickly to forest companies than traditional breeding approaches.

SpruceSEA stands for Spruce Somatic Embryogenesis Application Austria. The Austrian Research Centre for Forests (BFW) has teamed up with Austrian forest plant producer LIECO and Swedish biotech company SweTree Technologies for this project.

“Our unique cooperation will help to bring endangered genetic resources which are essential for the adaptive capacity of trees to changing climate faster back into the forest,” Silvio Schüler, project manager at BFW said.

In the face of climate change, traditional breeding of forest trees requires too much time. In order to adjust to rapidly changing conditions, to avoid large areas of damage, and to advance climate-smart forest restoration and transformation, the supply with suitable tree seeds is crucial.

Various mixed tree species are highly in demand, but many of them have low seed yields and produce seed crops at irregular patterns. So to preserve the valuable genetic resources, SpruceSEA utilizes “somatic embryogenesis” (SE) technologies. Here, the embryo is removed from the seed and propagated in the laboratory. So, a large number of plants can be obtained from small quantities of particularly valuable seeds.

The propagation of plants by means of somatic embryogenesis was discovered as early as 1957 and has since become essential for the breeding and propagation of ornamental and crop plants. Although the method has also been established for several tree species already, it has not yet found its way into wider application.

“The increasing demand for climate-tolerant forest plants requires new methods of plant production,” LIECO Managing Director Christoph Hartleitner said.

“If the project is successful, SE seedlings could be used more widely for future reforestation and afforestation supporting productive and climate-smart forests and providing benefits for the entire value chain and our society,” added LIECO Group Managing Director Oliver Hilpold.

The pilot project will test the application of somatic embryogenesis for native tree species such as spruce. Pre-selected, vital and vigorous seeds will be propagated and grown as container plants.

“For the production of these SE spruce seedlings on a commercial scale, SweTree Technologies has just completed an automated pilot plant, which will now be tested for a year,” said Christofer Rhén, CEO of SweTree Technologies, technology leader in the implementation of SE production in the forestry sector.

If the pilot plant meets the requirements, the plant can be expanded to produce between two and 20 million seedlings per year, which can be delivered to customers such as LIECO.

“With this new project, we are promoting genetic diversity, which is key to climate-smart forests. Their sustainable management allows us to increase the utilization of wood and to replace CO2-intensive materials. In this way, we preserve the contribution of our forests in our fight against climate change,” said Rudolf Rosenstatter, chairman of the Austrian Forest Wood Paper cooperation platform (FHP), which is funding the project.

In order to meet the growing demand for forest plants, research efforts have also been increased in other European countries in recent years.