$1.3 Million Grant Helps Washington Probe Christmas Tree Maladies

Yule trees get closer look at diseases, needle loss.

Published on: Dec 26, 2012

That Christmas tree still standing in your living room window is the subject of a new research grant of $1.3 million to Washington State University.

Researchers will use the USDA grant to probe problems like phytophthora root rot, a fungus that can cause up to 75% of a crop to fail. Probably more important to the homeowner is the study on needle f all, something that every homeowner complains about once the tree reaches the after holiday stage.

Researchers at WSU and other universities are collaborating to battle both problems with the help of a five-year $1.3 million USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant.

"The Christmas tree industry has some big challenges," says WSU researcher Gary Chastagner. " We hope that this national project will bring together scientific expertise and techniques to address these two issues."

New Washington research may help avoid needle fall from your Christmas tree.
New Washington research may help avoid needle fall from your Christmas tree.

Focusing on firs, the researchers will leverage the geonomics groups at North Carolina State University and the University of California-Davis to find genetic markers for phytophthora  resistance and needle retention.

"Phytophthora root rot plagues all regions where firs are grown as Christmas trees," says John Frampton, a NCSU geneticist and project collaborator. There is no effective control for phytophthora, so the best way to tackle the problem is to find resistant tree species.

Chastagener's grad  student, Katie McKeever, is collecting isolates of phytophthora in various growing areas. By sequencing these samples and conducting pathogenicity studies, she will contribute critical information to the team's search for mechanisms of resistance in trees. Once the researchers find the relevant  genetic markers, they can screen adult trees and  select the most promising as seed sources for viable Christmas tree plantations.

The team will use similar techniques to resolve the matter of needle shedding. Chastagner's multi-decade cataloging of Christmas trees by varying degrees of postharvest needle retention will give this part of the project a jump start.

By using these and other trees, scientists will be able to quickly identify needle-retentive gene sources so growers can produce desirable crops.