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Sequencing the genome of the rare albino redwood tree

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An illusive and fragile genetic mutation of the Coast Redwood is spurring scientific study at Stanford and UC Santa Cruz.

Known as "Albino Redwoods," the trees are extremely rare and have perplexed scientists for some time because their white needles, weak bark and slow growth are in stark contrast to conventional redwood attributes. So Stanford medical researchers launched a project to decode the white evergreen's DNA, and colleagues at UC Santa Cruz are working to better understand its physiology.

An article published yesterday in the San Jose Mercury News discussed the project:

At Stanford, a team is on a hunt for the genetic change, or mutation, that renders trees so weak and white - as well as any other differences that create species variation.

Understanding the genetics of the coast redwood is a daunting task. Genetically, the tree is what's called a hexaploid. That means that each of its cells contains six sets of chromosomes, for 66 chromosomes total. In contrast, humans are merely diploid, with 23 chromosomes. Such abundance is very unusual - and could suggest more opportunities for mutations.

"It is much more complicated than humans," holding much more genetic information, said [Ghia Euskirchen, director of the medical school's DNA Sequencing Program], who plans to study the molecular blueprint of both normal and albino redwoods - then compare their results.

Photo by Vlad Butsky

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