SLU news

SEK 91 million to forest tree research

Published: 21 December 2021
Snowy forest

The Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research, SSF, has awarded funding to three projects in forest research. María Rosario García-Gil, Ove Nilsson, both SLU and Stefan Jansson, Umeå University, want to develop models for a sustainable development of future forest trees using biotechnology and new digital tools. The three main applicants work together daily at Umeå Plant Science Centre, a successful collaboration between SLU and Umeå University.

Conventional tree breeding is slow. It takes about 25 years to complete a breeding cycle for pine and spruce. Ove Nilsson, professor at the Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), and his co-applicants Jens Sundström, SLU Uppsala, Harry Wu, UPSC and Mari Suontama, Skogforsk, want to address this problem by making Norway spruce mature faster so that they set their cones earlier. With the help of this they will develop a new tool for rapid breeding of trees that are better adapted to a new climate and new diseases.

“Forestry in Sweden currently faces several problems. The demand for forest products increases but also the need to preserve biodiversity and counteract climate change. We hope that our research can contribute to solve some of these problems”, says Ove Nilsson who is also the director of UPSC.

“Researchers from UPSC submitted several research projects for this call from SSF and it is fantastic news that three of them got approved. I am very delighted about this outcome. This is a nice Christmas present not only for me and my co-applicants but for all of UPSC.”

María Rosario García-Gil, researcher at the same department as Ove Nilsson at SLU, and her co-applicants from SLU Umeå and Uppsala, Skogforsk and RISE plan to address the same problem: to shorten the breeding cycle of Norway spruce. However, they are going for a completely different approach which they call “landscape breeding”. They want to develop a digital breeding tool for Norway spruce that helps to speed up the breeding cycle and in parallel allows for the preservation of biodiversity. Using remote sensors, they plan to monitor tree quality and health as well as local environmental data and combine this with modern DNA analyses.

“Our approach is based on commercial forests of Norway spruce. The trees originally derive from breeding programs but are openly pollinated by surrounding trees”, explains María Rosario García-Gil. “The sensor data will help us to identify trees with outstanding features like for example better growth, trunk quality and health and link the tree performance to environmental data on a landscape scale. We will use DNA analyses to identify the underlying genetic relationships and incorporate all data into breeding strategies. This procedure will fasten the breeding process without compromising key biotopes that are important to preserve biodiversity.”

When optimising plant growth, the capacity of photosynthesis and nitrogen are often limiting factors. Stefan Jansson, professor at the Department of Plant Physiology at Umeå University, and his co-applicants Olivier Keech from the same department and Henrik Böhlenius from SLU Alnarp, want to enhance photosynthesis and also optimize nitrogen balance in deciduous trees.

“We must set aside forests in Sweden to preserve biodiversity, but we need, in parallell, to increase the productivity in other areas to meet the increasing need for forest products”, says Stefan Jansson. “One way to address this is short rotation plantations with fast growing trees like aspen and poplars. If they could be coupled to bio-CCS (carbon capture and storage) they would provide raw material/energy while giving negative carbon dioxide emissions. We hope to make such plantations economically more attractive by improving their productivity and reducing nitrogen input and therefore contributing to Sweden’s goal to become carbon neutral by 2045.”

The call “Biotechnology and plant breeding – food, feed and forest” from the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research (SSF) is a multidisciplinary biotechnological initiative that focused on plant breeding. The long-term goal is to make Sweden more self-sufficient and strengthen its exports while reducing the climate impact. Together with a fourth project from KTH the projects will share 120 million SEK. The funding is assigned for a five-year period.

Link to the press release from SSF


The projects

  • Landscape Breeding: A new paradigm in forest tree management      

Main applicant and contact: María Rosario García-Gil, Umeå Plant Science Centre, Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences

Co-applicants: Eva Lindberg, Johan Holmgren and Kenneth Olofsson, the Department of Forest Resource Management, SLU Umeå, Tomas Lundmark, Department of Forest Ecology and Management, SLU Umeå, Malin Elfstrand and Jan Stenlid, Department of Forest Mycology and Plant Pathology, SLU Uppsala, Nicolas Delhomme, Umeå Plant Science Centre, Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology, SLU Umeå, Mari Suontamaa, Skogforsk and Gerhard Scheepers, RISE.


  • Trees that grow better

Main applicant and contact: Stefan Jansson, Umeå Plant Science Centre, Department of Plant Physiology, Umeå University

Co-applicants: Olivier Keech, Umeå Plant Science Centre, Department of Plant Physiology, Umeå University and Henrik Böhlenius, Southern Swedish Forest Research Centre, SLU Alnarp.


  • Rapid-Cycling Breeding

Main applicant and contact: Ove Nilsson, Umeå Plant Science Centre, Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences

Co-applicants: Jens Sundström, Department of Plant Biology, SLU Uppsala, Harry Wu, Umeå Plant Science Centre, Department of Forest Genetics and Plant Physiology, SLU Umeå and Mari Suontama, Skogforsk