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World first as scientists sequence the genome of the Ash tree



  • In recent years Ash trees have been decimated by ash dieback disease, now that scientists have sequenced their genome conservations can craft new ways to save them for future generations


The genome of the Common Ash tree, fraxinus excelsior, has been sequenced for the first time – an important step in the battle against ash dieback disease.

Researchers, writing in Nature, found UK ash trees seemed to have more tolerance to the disease which first hit Britains shores in 2012, than Danish trees, which were devastated by the fungal pathogen. But the scientists warned that the species faced another serious threat – the Emerald Ash Borer insect.


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“We sequenced an ash genome for the first time and compared it to other plant genomes and we found that a quarter of the genes were unique,” explained co-author Richard Buggs from the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at the Queen Mary University of London.

“This really underlined why we needed to do the project, because there is so much of the ash that seems to be unique to the species.”

Dr Buggs, the head of plant health at Royal Botanical Gardens Kew, said that fellow members of the team from the University of York used the data to compare UK specimens with ones from Denmark, where the disease had been present for two decades and had decimated the country’s population of ash trees.


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“They found evidence that ash trees in the UK could harbour lower levels of susceptibility to ash dieback than trees in Denmark,” he said.

After being first reported in Poland, a large number of trees in northern Europe have become infected with the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus.

Symptoms on infected trees include leaf loss, lesions in the wood and on the bark and ultimately the dieback of the crown of the tree. Young trees can succumb to the pathogen in just one growing season, while older trees take several years to die and when the disease crossed the North Sea in 2012 it prompted widespread concern among scientists and politicians alike.

Following the arrival of ash dieback on these shores and the acceptance that the disease will not be eradicated, the government listed bio-security as one of its environmental priorities in order to prevent future accidental invasions of alien pathogens.


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“If it turns out that there’s more trees in the UK that have low susceptibility to ash dieback then that’s really quite good news for us… because, ultimately, we would like to breed trees that are completely resistant to ash dieback,” said Dr Buggs, “if we already have native trees with low susceptibility then it’s quite promising.”

Dr Buggs said he didn’t think that ash dieback posed a threat to UK ash trees on a scale similar to the devastating impact that Dutch elm disease had upon the UK’s elm population as the genetic diversity among the nation’s ash trees was greater than the one in the elm trees.

However, the team warned that the species faced another serious threat. The Emerald Ash Borer, a small beetle, was first discovered in the Moscow area in 2007 and is a pathogen that is cause for serious concern among experts.

Since the turn of the century, the beetle has killed tens of millions of trees in North America and is expected to have cost the US economy $10 billion by 2020.

Research from the University of Exeter and University of Warwick, also published in Nature, found that trees that had a higher degree of resistance to ash dieback had lower levels of a chemical compound that are known to deter insects.

“Our research highlights the danger of selecting trees for resilience to ash dieback at the expense of resistance to insects that threaten this iconic UK tree species,” explained co-author Dr Christine Sambles from the University of Exeter.


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“I think that’s why we need really tight bio-security going forward,” added Dr Buggs.

Following the arrival of ash dieback in the UK, the Environment Secretary at the time, Owen Paterson, listed bio-security as one of his department’s priorities and it was a position that was restated by his successor, Liz Truss.

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