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Dr Andi Horvath
0419 935 350
andrea.horvath (at) unimelb.edu.au

Scientists have sequenced the genetic code of the eucalypt for the first time, providing fresh insights into the Australian icon that has become the world’s favourite hardwood.

The work gives insights into the formation of the complex oils produced by eucalypts, which can help koala preservation efforts, minimise pest damage to plantations, and could one day lead to eucalypt oils being a base for jet fuel.

Australian researchers collaborated with 30 institutions in 9 countries to sequence and analyse the genome of the Flooded Gum (Eucalyptus grandis).

“Efforts to sequence the genome of a eucalypt started over a decade ago,” explained Dr Antanas Spokevicius of the University of Melbourne, who was a co-author on the paper, which has been published in Nature. “There have been a number of international workshops, meetings and other exchanges that have brought the international eucalypt research community together to discuss, and now create, the resources to unlock the potential of eucalypts as a truly global fuel and fibre source.”  

Native to Australia, Eucalyptus trees have become the world’s most widely planted hardwood due to their fast growth, adaptability and complex oils.

“Eucalypts are now the hardwood plantation species of choice in many parts of the world for applications like paper making and bio-energy. This resource will provide a huge boost for breeding and biotechnological tree improvement programs and has put us on the same foot as many other important crop species whose improvement programs have benefited greatly from a sequenced genome,” said Dr Spokevicius.

Dr Spokevicius, and Dr Josquin Tibbits from the Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries and an honorary research fellow at the University of Melbourne, played a pivotal role in the genome sequencing.

Dr Carsten Kulheim from the Australian National University said: “The genetic code will help us understand a foundation species for the Australian eco-system and how it affects other species, from fungi through to the koala.”

“It will give scientists the tools to know what plants a koala will feed on and not feed on, which helps with measures to preserve koala habitat,” said Dr Kulheim, who is one of the lead Australian researchers on the project.

The wide genetic variability within each of the 700 eucalypt species has left scientists unable to explain differences between individual trees until now, such as why one tree produces leaves koalas find irresistible while another from the same species is unpalatable to koalas, yet repels pests much better.

The sequence consists of 640 million base pairs of DNA, containing over 36,000 genes – almost double the number of genes in the human genome.

The researchers identified 113 genes responsible for synthesising terpenes, the familiar aromatic essential oils of eucalypts.

The study also included researchers from the Western Australian Department of Parks and Wildlife, the University of Tasmania and the University of the Sunshine Coast.