Academia Sinica biologists yesterday announced that they have decoded the genome of the stout camphor tree (牛樟), an endemic species, and hope to gain a better understanding of the evolution and potential medical use of the species.
Stout camphor trees grow in forests 450m to 2,000m above sea level, and are known for their aromatic oil and used in the development of new cancer treatments, Academia Sinica Biodiversity Research Center director Chaw Shu-miaw (趙淑妙) told a news conference in Taipei.
The number of trees has substantially declined in Taiwan due to geological changes and illegal logging, as poachers often target the trees to collect Taiwanofungus camphoratus — a rare fungus that grows on the trees’ bark that has medicinal applications, she said.
The team spent five years decoding the species’ nearly 28,000 genes, making possible its genetic preservation, replication and editing for pharmaceutical or conservation purposes, she said.
They also succeeded in cultivating a slice of the tree’s trunk in a petri dish for two months.
Artificial reproduction of tree tissue could help curb illegal poaching, as it could preserve genes in a purer environment than trees that grow wild, Chaw said.
The research results were published in a paper, “Stout camphor tree genome fills gaps in understanding of flowering plant genome evolution,” in the journal Nature Plants on Jan. 9.
Chaw said she had received many requests from abroad to share the genetic data since the paper was published, mostly from Chinese academics, and their research might also advance studies on sister species.
The team had to conduct its research under the guidance of Council of Agriculture officials, as access to the trees is regulated due to its value attraction for poachers, she added.
Stout camphor trees are protected under the Forestry Act (森林法), and people convicted of illegally logging the trees could face a prison sentence of up to seven-and-a-half years and a fine 10 to 20 times the market value of the trunk they cut, the Forestry Bureau said.
A stout camphor tree trunk could fetch between NT$130,000 and NT$210,000 per cubic meter, the bureau said.
However, poachers have recently turned their attention toward Taiwanese incense cedar, instead of stout camphor trees, it added.
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