World-first project to unlock genetic code of prehistoric Wollemi Pine

Scientists from Deakin University and the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney have started the first genome sequencing project to protect the Wollemi Pine, one of the world’s oldest tree lineages.

The project is the botanical equivalent of mapping a Tyrannosaurus’ genome and will be the first-time scientists have the complete DNA sequence of the prehistoric plant thought to be long extinct until re-discovered by a NSW parks officer in 1994.

A significant part of the work is being carried out at the Deakin Genomics Centre, which is a new multi-million dollar facility in the University’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences at Geelong, and is supported by sequencing technology company Illumina.

Deakin Genomics Centre manager Associate Professor Larry Croft said sequencing the Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis) was the botanical equivalent of mapping the genome of the giant Tyrannosaurus dinosaur.

“This can only be done because the Wollemi has survived largely unchanged for more than 100 million years, whereas all the dinosaurs, except for the birds, have been extinct for more than 60 million years,” Associate Professor Croft said.

He said the Wollemi Pine genome was twice as long as the human genome.

“We have already sequenced six hundred billion DNA bases of the Wollemi Pine, counted as T, A, G and Cs in the language of DNA. If you were to print that data onto A4 sheets of paper and line them up, it could easily go around the Earth’s equator,” he said.

“Very large genomes, such as the gymnosperms – pine trees and their relatives – contain lots of repetitive DNA sequences. We don’t know yet what these regions do, but it’s like having a jigsaw puzzle with all sky, it makes it hard to assemble.

“The supercomputer in Canberra that will complete this jigsaw puzzle has the computing power equivalent to 85,000 top-of-the-range laptops.”

Senior Principle Research Scientist from the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, Dr Maurizio Rossetto, said that once the Wollemi Pine’s genome was sequenced, it would tell the previously untold history of this rare plant.

“Unlocking the Wollemi Pine’s genetic code will help us better understand one of the biggest threats it faces within its vulnerable natural population – the deadly disease Phytophthora cinnamomi,” Dr Rossetto said.

“Mapping a genome is like travelling through time and we will find when the Wollemi Pine was once more widespread, which could help us identify better opportunities for future translocation projects.

“With only four stands of the critically endangered conifer growing in remote canyons near Sydney, this cutting-edge research will help inform vital conservation decisions to safeguard its future.”

Associate Professor Croft said the Deakin Genomics Centre, based at the University’s Waurn Ponds campus, was Australia’s only genomic facility focused predominately on plant, animal and environmental research.

“The Wollemi Pine will be one of many projects carried out at this centre focussing on cracking the genetic codes of iconic Australian species,” he said.

“Whether it’s revealing the secrets of a prehistoric tree or supporting the conservation of the tiger quoll, the science of genomics and the methods of DNA sequencing are remarkably similar, and understanding the genetics of endangered species is a vital part of conservation science.”

The Wollemi Pine genome is due to be sequenced, assembled and published by mid-2020.

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