LEAFY isn’t just a splendid adjective, it’s also the science-y name of a plant gene that’s key to growing flowers. OSU forest scientists have successfully used RNA interference to muffle the LEAFY gene’s expression in poplar trees. The gene is still there, but like a skip-y spot on a record, it just doesn’t quite get read.
Researchers are hopeful this technology might someday help increase wood production in hybrid poplars and other types of trees without the risk of promiscuous pollen and seed production. Scientists have known about the LEAFY gene’s role in flower formation for decades, but this is the first time RNA interference has ever been used to produce any sort of seedless forest tree.
Poplar trees like these have proven extremely useful in a variety of applications. They offer promising short-rotation sources of sustainable pulpwood and engineered lumber products, as well as encouraging results in bioremediation of contaminated soils. Findings from field trials in the Willamette Valley were recently published in Nature Biotechnology.