CLEMSON — Clemson University is engaging in a bit of “tree diplomacy” with China. A team of Clemson scientists and students will travel to China to share research on boosting tree production. The USDA awarded $149,000 to Haiying Liang, a plant geneticist and biotechnologist in the genetics and biochemistry department at Clemson.

The project is to identify the crucial genes in certain coniferous trees that control the pace of reproducing. Ten students each year of the three-year grant will be selected to travel to China, visiting Chinese scientists who are applying genomics to improve valuable traits in wood plants, including fruit crops and forest trees.

“The USDA realizes the importance of international collaboration projects, and I thank officials for selecting Clemson to build relationships with Beijing Forestry University and other Chinese universities,” said Liang. “It will be an excellent opportunity for Clemson students to participate in needed research and develop worldwide contacts.”

The Clemson scientists include Liang, plant breeder Ksenja Gasic, plant physiologist Douglas Bielenberg and plant geneticist Gregory Reighard.

The Clemson group and their Chinese counterparts have selected two tree species, dawn redwood and bald cypress, which share genetic characteristics and live in both nations. The conifers grow robustly and have long lives, but both are “late bloomers” when it comes to reproducing. Dawn redwoods don't begin bearing male and female cones until they are 25 years old. Bald cypress typically don't mature for 30 years.

“Such long juvenile phases are a major obstacle to breeding these trees, which affects their economic value,” said Liang. “We are looking for genes and biochemicals that control reproduction.”

Professor Weilun Yin of Beijing Forestry University has developed a way to signal juvenile dawn redwood trees to start their reproductive stage earlier — as early as 1 to 5 years old. Yun uses a hormone solution to activate or deactivate some of the tree's genes. Plant hormones are the chemicals that control growth, sending signals that affect the stem, leaves, flowers and fruit.

“Clemson is known internationally for its research on fruit-tree genetics,” said Liang. “The university's Institute of Fruit and Forest Tree genetics has built research partnerships with European scientists, but not with Asian colleagues. China is the birthplace of the peach tree and was where the dawn redwood was discovered in the 1940s after scientists thought it was extinct.”

To prepare for the two-week trip, the students will go through an intensive one-week workshop on the Clemson campus, covering not only scientific issues, but also cultural challenges.

“This will be a unique experience for our Clemson students,” said Liang. “They will get to visit several universities and interact with Chinese students.”

Ten students will be selected. Four will have scholarships to pay for their trips. The other six will have to pay their own way, approximately $3,000 for airfare and other costs.

Liang is Chinese and a graduate of Beijing Forestry University. She taught three years there before moving to the United States.

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