The forestry program in the department of ecosystem science and management at Texas A&M University is making headlines. And rightfully so. The program recently gained national accreditation through the Society of American Foresters after refocusing the program through adjusting the curriculum.
The accreditation, which took more than a year to prepare for, sets the program up to be a leader in training forestry professionals. With it, the accreditation brings recognition by peers in academia and industry as well as for the graduates from the program. It also validates the years of hard work that went into revamping the new curriculum to emphasize a scientific understanding of forests ecosystems and in doing so, serving both conservation and traditional forest management interests.
In addition to the curriculum updates, faculty in the forestry program are participating in a number of national research projects. Faculty members Jianbang Gan, Carol Loopstra, Jason Vogel, Jason West, Eric Taylor and Tom Byram, work on USDA funded projects meant to make managed forests more profitable, resistant to climate change and attack by insects and disease, and increase forest carbon sequestration.
Two USDA funded projects have facilitated their research— The Pine Integrated Network: Education, Mitigation, and Adaptation Project (PINEMAP) and Pine Reference Sequences (PineRefSeq).
PINEMAP focuses on the 20 million acres of planted pine forests managed by private landowners in the Atlantic and Gulf coastal states from Virginia to Texas, plus Arkansas and Oklahoma. These forests provide critical economic and ecological services to U.S. citizens. Southeastern forests contain 1/3 of the contiguous U.S. forest carbon and form the backbone of an industry that supplies 16 percent of global industrial wood, 5.5 percent of the jobs, and 7.5 percent of the industrial economic activity of the region.
With an unprecedented team of 57 scientists, educators, and Extension professionals from 11 southeastern land grant universities, PINEMAP is a five-year, $20 million project funded by the USDA. The team is dedicated to making the managed pine resource more productive and more resilient against future climate change. In addition, the PINEMAP team is trying to understand how managed pine forests might be used to offset increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide.
With such a large, interdisciplinary team, PINEMAP is split into four research teams – (1) Ecosystem Ecology/Silviculture; (2) Modeling; (3) Genetics and Breeding; and (4) Economics and Policy. Texas A&M is represented in each of the research teams.
Dr. Jason Vogel, assistant professor in ecosystem science and management, serves as the Texas A&M institutional representative for the project. He is a member of the silviculture research team, which focuses on pine productivity, ecosystem carbon accumulation, and nutrient dynamics as these respond to different forestry practices and climate.
In his current research, Dr. Vogel has found preliminary data suggest that different fertilizer mixtures can have very different effects on soil organic matter accumulation. “Historically, research suggested that the effect of fertilizer was consistently positive for soil organic matter,” Dr. Vogel says, “but we are getting some data that suggests fertilizer can have different effects on soil organic matter that depend on its elemental constituents.”
Along with Dr. Vogel, other faculty members in the department of ecosystem science and management, participate in the PINEMAP project. Dr. West studies pine ecophysiology under different climate regimes. Dr. Gan is a member of both the modeling research team and the economics and policy team, while Dr. Byram, and Dr. Loopstra cover genetics and breeding.
With her genomic research on the loblolly pine, Dr. Loopstra, an associate professor of ecosystem science and management, is in the unique position to contribute to both the PINEMAP project and the PineRefSeq, another USDA-funded project.
Based out of UC Davis, PineRefSeq’s research team represents six universities and one research center. The goal of this $14.6 million, five-year project is to develop a high quality reference genome sequence for loblolly pine, Douglas-fir and sugar pine by means that can serve as a model approach for sequencing other large, complex genomes.
The research team has already used next-generation sequencing technology to generate 16 billion short sequence fragments, representing 60-fold coverage of the massive loblolly pine genome. Because pine genomes are roughly 10 times the size of the human genome, the sequencing of the loblolly pine is the largest to ever be successfully completed.
Dr. Loopstra, a co-principal investigator and representative from Texas A&M, contributed to PineRefSeq’s transcriptome sequencing of the loblolly pine genome. “Most of the DNA in pine trees are not genes,” says Dr. Loopstra. “My job is to identify what parts of the DNA are genes, which have an impact on traits of the pine tree.”
The loblolly genome sequencing in PineRefSeq has now aided Dr. Loopstra in her work on PINEMAP. “It’s interesting how my efforts on PineRefSeq are coming back to benefit the efforts of others in my lab in our work on PINEMAP,” says Dr. Loopstra.
Through research and academics, Texas A&M’s forestry program is poised to be a leader in forest ecosystem science well into the future.