Christmas trees are a tradition shared by tens of millions of North American families, a holdover of old-fashioned holidays. But of course, there’s no such thing as a simple, low-tech Christmas tree, especially not today. For decades, scientists have been working closely with growers to develop perfect trees—because we, the consumers, demand it.
This fall, Dalhousie University’s Christmas Tree Research Centre announced the first commercial licensing of its SMART balsam fir trees—a sort of Superman version of the highly popular balsam fir grown in eastern Canada and exported around the world to cities as far away as Dubai.
Once the technology becomes commercially viable—a process that’s now underway—growers could be planting whole fields of ideal, identical trees.
SMART is an acronym for “senescence modulated abscission regulated technologies,” essentially a specialized gene pool of the tree. The trees aren’t exactly clones—more like the product of a high-tech version of grafting, where cuttings, or tissues, from one plant are used to propagate others in a process called somatic embryogenesis.
“These trees are developed from crossing high needle-retaining parents to develop seedlings,” the research centre’s director, Raj Lada, explained in an email. “From the seed we extracted embryos, multiplied cells from the tissues, generated several cell lines, which generated embryos, and transformed embryos into full seedlings.”
This process, called somatic embryogenesis, could be a major advance for the industry, and was hailed as “the dawn of a new era in Christmas tree production” at the international Christmas Tree Research and Extension Conference, held in Iceland this September.
Lada’s team identified the gene that controls needle retention, and developed trees that can retain their needles for up to three months after the harvest, since “messiness” has been identified as the number one reason consumers avoid real trees. It turns out that while we want the experience of real pine needles perfuming the air, we do not want to actually clean up after them.
Growers also helped select for traits by identifying trees with the best architecture—those with bushy, full, and even branches—and Lada’s team further enhanced the trees’ ability to withstand drought and temperature swings. Now they’re working to identify the genes responsible for other traits, including pest and disease resistance.
Somatic embryogenesis is also under investigation at the Molecular Tree Breeding Lab at North Carolina State University, where scientists view the technique as a “pathway for large-scale clonal propagation and genetic engineering in the future,” as the lab’s site explains.
But such cloning techniques first require certainty you’ve got an elite tree. To that end, the team’s research blends the sciences of genetics, molecular biology, and breeding to better understand and enhance the Fraser fir—another hugely popular and lucrative Christmas tree species that nets North Carolina over $100 million in revenue annually.
Part of that effort includes applying next generation sequencing (NGS) technologies to study the fir’s genome.
NCSU plant scientist Lilian Matallana expects the team to publish early next year what she carefully termed “the first complication of genomic information” related to needle retention in the Fraser, which will be no small feat, she told me, since the genomes of conifers are “giant—five to 10 times the size of a human genome.”
Understanding the fir’s genome will help unlock the keys to needle retention and other traits including resistance to disease, especially the damaging Phytophthora root rot.
“It means ‘plant destroyer,’ and the pathogen is related to the pathogen that causes potato late blight,” responsible for the Irish potato famine, explained Gary Chastagner, a Washington State University plant pathologist who’s been researching Christmas trees since 1979. He’s part of a team testing whether European species that are less susceptible to the pathogen can be grown in America. “Climate change and warmer falls will likely increase issues with needle retention,” Chastagner added, since trees harvested during colder, shorter days have been shown to shed less.
The likely impacts of climate change aren’t great news for the National Christmas Tree Association, which represents 700 farmers across the US and each winter presents the White House with the best tree of the year (the Grand Champion this year was a 19-foot balsam fir presented to Melania Trump).
But for growers, the number one worry remains plastic trees. The $2-billion real tree industry is “doing good,” noted Doug Hundley, the association’s seasonal spokesperson, but it could be better.
While customers bought 27.4 million real trees in 2016, they bought a further 18.6 million artificial ones, according to the association’s survey. “You know Americans,” he said, “we’re into plastic.”
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter .