All I want fir Christmas

By Toby McMaster

The living room’s most popular festive feature, the Fraser fir, has no immunity against the phytophthora root pathogen, infamous amongst plant pathologists, with its greek name meaning ‘plant destroyer’. Professor John Frampton of North Carolina State University is out to change that.

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Credit: Teresa Sikora

A species of phytophthora caused the potato blight of the great Irish famine and no variant of the Fraser fir has ever been found to be even slightly resistant to the disease. However help is at hand from the Fraser’s Japanese cousin, the Momfi fir, which makes an awful Christmas tree itself but is incredibly resistant to phytophthora.

Fraser firs can be grafted onto the roots of a Momfi, to produce a chimera with the best of both worlds: resistant roots and the beautiful Christmassy look of a Fraser. Frampton’s lab is attempting to find genetic sequences encoding root-rot resistance but this is a slow process, genetic modification of Christmas trees is likely to be a thing of the distant future. Even when good trees are found and researchers cross them it takes firs 10 to 12 years before they can reproduce and after this another 6 or so to judge the quality of the resulting progeny.

However eventually researchers hope to get to the root of the problem.

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