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UK Consortium Reaps $3.6M for Ash Tree Fungal Genome Sequencing Effort

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – UK researchers will use £2.4 million ($3.6 million) in new funding to conduct genome sequencing and analysis to understand how a "devastating fungus" attacks ash trees and how some trees resist those attacks, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council said today.

Funding from the BBSRC will support efforts by a group called the Nornex Consortium that will aim to generate genome sequences of up to 30 samples of the ash dieback (Chalara fraxinea) fungus.

Nornex also will use a £50,000 award from the Natural Environment Research Council of the UK to create a complete genome sequence of the ash tree by August.

The consortium is headed by the John Innes Centre, and includes partners at The Sainsbury Laboratory; East Malling Research; the University of Exeter; The Genepool at the University of Edinburgh; The Genome Analysis Centre; Forest Research; the University of Copenhagen; and the Norwegian Forest and Landscape Institute.

The partners hope to analyze the fungal genome to find out how it infects its hosts and to find genetic markers that will enable them to follow different strains of the fungus. They plan to study the infection and colonization process in climate-controlled facilities with the goal of developing better strategies for controlling the disease.

The partners also hope that the ash tree genome will hold clues to how some of the trees are able to partially resist attack. Around 2 percent of Danish trees may be able to fend off the disease, and knowledge about the genetic differences between these and other non-resistant trees could be used to develop trees that cannot be infected.

"Little is known about the fungus, why it is so aggressive, or its interactions with the trees that it attacks. This prevents effective control strategies," BBSRC Chief Executive Douglas Kell said in a statement.

Kell said that these projects hopefully will show the research community how to use the natural processes that ash trees use to defend themselves naturally to develop broader defense strategies.

The genetic data the researchers generate will be uploaded to an open-access website to enable the international plant and fungal research communities to sort through it in crowd-sourcing efforts.

The funding is part of a larger UK effort focused on tree health that is operating under the Living With Environmental Change Partnership.