A world-first DNA feat by New Zealand scientists could boost the way we grow the star species of our plantation forests.
By completing a draft assembly of the radiata pine's genetic make-up, or genome, researchers at Crown research institute Scion have opened the door to a new era of precision forestry for the critically important species.
The genome assembly began in 2013 and was completed last month, using the Rotorua-based institute's newly acquired high-capacity computer server - the largest of its kind undertaking genomics work in New Zealand.
The official announcement on the completion of the genome assembly was made at the Forest Growers Research Conference in Christchurch this week.
"The completion of the genome assembly means that we now have an instruction book for how a radiata tree grows," said Scion's Dr Emily Telfer, who led the project.
"It's the foundation we need to begin the task of deciphering what each of the base pairs of DNA relates to in physical terms."
At 25 billion base pairs, the radiata pine genome is eight times bigger than the human genome.
Following assembly, the next steps are to understand each piece of the genome and the role it plays in tree growth and resilience.
The sheer size of the genome was a large challenge to researchers.
"This is not the kind of problem we could fix just by throwing resources at it," Telfer said.
"We had to come up with a way to segment the genome, process it and put it back together again."
With this knowledge, the forestry industry could breed trees with their desired characteristics - hastening the current method of selective breeding that can take decades to produce superior trees.
Once geneticists understood the genome better, there could be yet more advances.
"We could breed a whole range of different trees - from construction timber to biofuels."
Another major advantage could be in mitigating the effects of climate change and disease.
As environments altered with the climate, diseases not previously found in New Zealand might establish here and threaten our forests.
Thanks to genomics, scientists would be able to identify genes with drought and disease resistance, and establish them in the wider population much faster, Telfer said.
The genome assembly would also benefit the international scientific and forest growing community.
Radiata is the backbone of New Zealand's forestry industry, but was also the most domesticated pine in the world and is grown commercially in Australia, Chile, Spain and South Africa.