New greenhouse on horizon

November 27, 2003, vol. 28, no. 7
By Diane Luckow

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Hand-crafted curly birch desks in the Swedish parliament and exotic furniture in exclusive Baghdad hotels are testament to the wood-crafting skills of SFU assistant biology professor Jim Mattsson.

Trained as an apprentice furniture carpenter in his native Sweden, Mattsson spent several years hand-finishing tropical hardwood doors for Baghad hotels and curly birch desktops and mahogany conference tables for the Swedish parliament before giving up his craftsman career to indulge a keen interest in biology.

Today, he has combined his twin interests to try to uncover the genetic basis of wood formation, using the tiny but easily propagated plant arabidopsis.

“Currently, scientists know very little about how plants form wood, let alone decorative patterns in the wood,” says Mattsson, pointing to the distinctive grain of bird's eye maple and curly birch. “Once we have identified the genes responsible for wood formation in a fast-growing plant like arabidopsis, we can apply that knowledge on slow-growing trees, and possibly modify desirable traits.”

Mattsson is also developing technology to propagate rare trees like curly birch in order to provide a new source of value-added wood products for the B.C. forest industry.

The Canada Foundation for Innovation recently granted Mattsson $400,000 towards construction of a new centre for plant molecular breeding at SFU. Providing the B.C. government matches the funds, SFU could soon have a new 8600-square-foot greenhouse specially designed and equipped for research like Mattsson's, which involves growing and containing genetically modified plant materials.

The greenhouse will feature air, water and sewage filters to contain pollen and seed spread, a safety vestibule and facilities for destroying all materials before they leave the greenhouse. It will also feature complete environmental controls for regulating all aspects of plant growth and research.

The much-needed facility will also be used by researchers such as Zamir Punja and Aine Plant who study disease and stress resistance in crop species, and Allison Kermode who is working to improve seed germination in yellow cedar.

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