Genome-wide association mapping for wood characteristics in Populus identifies an array of candidate single nucleotide polymorphisms



  • Establishing links between phenotypes and molecular variants is of central importance to accelerate genetic improvement of economically important plant species. Our work represents the first genome-wide association study to the inherently complex and currently poorly understood genetic architecture of industrially relevant wood traits.
  • Here, we employed an Illumina Infinium 34K single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) genotyping array that generated 29 233 high-quality SNPs in c. 3500 broad-based candidate genes within a population of 334 unrelated Populus trichocarpa individuals to establish genome-wide associations.
  • The analysis revealed 141 significant SNPs (α ≤ 0.05) associated with 16 wood chemistry/ultrastructure traits, individually explaining 3–7% of the phenotypic variance. A large set of associations (41% of all hits) occurred in candidate genes preselected for their suggested a priori involvement with secondary growth. For example, an allelic variant in the FRA8 ortholog explained 21% of the total genetic variance in fiber length, when the trait's heritability estimate was considered. The remaining associations identified SNPs in genes not previously implicated in wood or secondary wall formation.
  • Our findings provide unique insights into wood trait architecture and support efforts for population improvement based on desirable allelic variants.


Plant secondary cell walls that form the bulk of biomass from wood or other lignocellulosic feedstocks are naturally recalcitrant to deconstruction and sugar release (saccharification). Such recalcitrance is attributed to the heterogeneity of the cell wall components, protection of cellulose microfibrils by lignin and hemicelluloses, inaccessibility of enzymes to the cellulose moieties, and cellulose crystallinity (Mansfield et al., 1999; Mosier et al., 2005). Hence, tailoring the lignocellulosic substrate to improve cell wall deconstruction and increase saccharification efficiency for the conversion into liquid biofuels remains an active field of research (Yuan et al., 2008; Carroll & Somerville, 2009; Shen et al., 2012).

Generally, wood from the genus Populus (poplars, cottonwoods and aspens) exhibits favorable relative proportions and structures of all three major cell wall components – cellulose, lignin and hemicellulose (Chang & Holtzapple, 2000; Dinus, 2000; Sannigrahi et al., 2010; Studer et al., 2011), with glucan content ranging from 39 to 49% of dry weight (DW), hemicelluloses content from 16 to 23% of DW, and lignin content from 21 to 29% of DW. Although xylan and lignin can serve as precursors for various biomaterials (Hatakeyama & Hatakeyama, 2010; Sannigrahi et al., 2010), for increased ethanol yield, feedstocks with lower lignin and, to some degree, lower xylan content, and an above-average syringyl lignin composition (syringyl : guaiacyl) remain research targets (Studer et al., 2011). Native Populus cellulose is c. 45–50% crystalline and this intrinsic ultrastructural property is an important parameter in the overall efficiency of the enzymatic saccharification reactions (Mansfield et al., 1999; Chang & Holtzapple, 2000). There is substantial natural variation for all of these properties in Populus (R.Kumar et al., 2009; Porth et al., 2013), and this may be exploited through breeding and biotechnological approaches to improve feedstock quality.

Previous studies have aimed at identifying allelic variants in candidate genes that could affect wood phenotypes through quantitative trait locus (QTL) analysis (Novaes et al., 2009; Thumma et al., 2010), or have employed association mapping to ‘unstructured’ populations to identify significant trait associations with small numbers of candidate genes (Thumma et al., 2009; Wegrzyn et al., 2010; Guerra et al., 2013). Unlike QTL studies, association genetics identifies genetic polymorphisms with higher resolution (as a result of rapid decline of linkage disequilibrium; Rafalski, 2010), which can be exploited for preselection of individuals for tree improvement. Generally, individual single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) typically explain only a small portion of the phenotypic variance (≤ 5%). This has been attributed to the ‘complexity’ of the traits (Wegrzyn et al., 2010), or to the application of single locus approaches to the multidimensionality of traits (Kremer, 2011). Genome-wide association (GWA) mapping, which has not yet been applied to trees, is also feasible where rich genomic resources enable high-density SNP genotyping (Brachi et al., 2011).

In addition to their economic importance for both traditional and bioenergy applications (Carroll & Somerville, 2009; Sannigrahi et al., 2010; Stanton et al., 2010), trees of the genus Populus play important ecological roles in natural ecosystems (Eckenwalder, 1996; Cronk, 2005). Extensive genetic and genomic resources exist for black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa), including a whole-genome reference (Nisqually-1; Tuskan et al., 2006), comprehensive expressed sequence tag (EST) resources, full-length cDNA and SNP databases (Tuskan et al., 2006; Ralph et al., 2008; Geraldes et al., 2011; Slavov et al., 2012), and range-wide collections of wild accessions (Xie et al., 2009; Slavov et al., 2012). Several previous population genomics studies demonstrated that Populus has excellent characteristics for association analysis. Populus spp. have highly variable linkage disequilibrium (LD) across the genome, relatively weak neutral population structure, extensive geographically structured phenotypic and adaptive genetic variation, and moderate neutral genetic variation (Ingvarsson, 2005; Olson et al., 2010; Keller et al., 2012; Slavov et al., 2012).

Although variations in traits such as wood composition (Ingvarsson et al., 2008; Sannigrahi et al., 2010; Wegrzyn et al., 2010) are well established in wild Populus populations, there are few association mapping studies for these traits, and those that do exist are based on genetic variants at a small number of genes (e.g. Ingvarsson et al., 2008; Wegrzyn et al., 2010). We have found that unrelated individuals in a range-wide collection of P. trichocarpa grown in a common garden display high degrees of heritable phenotypic variability in wood chemistry and ultrastructure traits (Porth et al., 2013), despite relatively low population genetic structure in this species (Wegrzyn et al., 2010; Slavov et al., 2012; Geraldes et al., 2013). Thus, in this study, we used a 34K SNP genotyping array (Geraldes et al., 2013) and association mapping to identify P. trichocarpa allelic variants that underlie variation in key wood chemistry and ultrastructure traits important for bioenergy and traditional uses. Using this array, we identified 141 significant SNPs associated with cell wall traits.

Materials and Methods

Association mapping population and generation of wood phenotypic data

The Populus trichocarpa Torr. & A. Gray (black cottonwood) association mapping population we employed was described previously (Xie et al., 2009; Geraldes et al., 2011, 2013; Porth et al., 2013). Briefly, we used increment cores taken from 384 9-yr-old trees from the collection grown in a common garden at Surrey, BC, Canada (Supporting Information, Table S1, Fig. S1).

The phenotyping pipeline used for analysis of wood chemical composition and wood physical and ultrastructural properties is described in Porth et al. (2013). In brief, phenotypic variation for 17 wood traits was assessed involving the relative amounts of monomeric cell wall sugars (arabinose, rhamnose, galactose, glucose, xylose, and mannose), polysaccharides (alpha cellulose, holocellulose), and lignin (acid-soluble and -insoluble fractions, as well as their composite total lignin) in dry wood, and relative lignin composition (% syringyl monomers), as well as the solid wood properties, % cell wall crystallinity, average wood density, microfibril angles at first and most recent growth ring, and fiber length. We evaluated the distributions of variation in all traits in the association population and found that all provided normal distribution, some after appropriate data transformation.

SNP genotyping

A detailed description of the selection of the 3543 candidate genes on the 34K Illumina Infinium® (Illumina Inc., San Diego CA, USA) SNP array that we employed in this study and a list of those genes are available in Geraldes et al. (2013), while genotyping is detailed in Porth et al. (2013). Genetic distances were calculated with simple Perl scripts. In short, for each pair of trees, we calculated the percentage of shared alleles and calculated the genetic distance as one minus the percentage of shared alleles. Relatedness coefficients were calculated in EigenSoft v4.2 (Patterson et al., 2006). One individual from each pair with relatedness of 0.5 or higher (suggestive of sib relationship) or genetic distance below 0.03% (suggestive of clonal identity) was removed from further analyses. The remaining analyzed population consisted of 334 unrelated individuals.

Genetic structure and trait association analysis

The genetic structure fit was done by performing principal component analysis (PCA) on SNPs (Patterson et al., 2006) with only complete information and satisfying the Hardy–Weinberg expectation (HWE). HWE was tested using ‘HWChisq’ function implemented in the ‘Hardy–Weinberg’ R package. PCA was done in R using the ‘prcomp’ function (Team, 2011) and principal components accounting for 90% of the total variance of the data were retained and subsequently included in the principal component regression analysis needed to select those components affecting the trait in question. This was conducted using the function ‘stepwise’ implemented in R package ‘Rcmdr’ with ‘backward’ selection and Bayesian information criterion ‘BIC’ as the selection criterion (Pant et al., 2010). The number of principal components (PCs) accounting for 90% of the total variance in the SNP data entering the stepwise selection procedure was 272 and the number of important principal components selected by the backward-stepwise selection differed for each trait and was on average 12 PCs per trait, but ranged from four (average wood density) to 24 (MFA1).

Finally, the selected PCs were included in a regression model along the preselected SNPs (identified for each trait as described later) individually as follows:

display math(Eqn 1)

where, Y is vector of measurements, μ is the population mean, α is the SNP effect, inline image represents the effect of selected PCs resulting from the backward-stepwise selection procedure, and e is the residual effect. Association analysis was performed in TASSEL (Bradbury et al., 2007) by the GLM procedure. Corrections for multiple testing were done using a permuted P-value procedure in TASSEL (1000 permutations were run). Cumulative R2 values were computed using the GLM function implemented in the base package R (Team, 2011), followed by the RsquareAdj function implemented in R package ‘vegan’ to obtain R2 for both the reduced and the full model (Peres-Neto et al., 2006).

Two approaches for analyzing SNP–wood chemistry/ultrastructure attributes were tested. First, a two-stage approach (Aulchenko et al., 2007; Pant et al., 2010) in which the initial step, SNP preselection, involved the use of a log-likelihood ratio test for each SNP–trait combination (SNPs = 29 233; traits = 17) performed with the ‘anova.lme’ function implemented in the ‘nlme’ R package (Pinheiro & Bates, 2000). SNPs with significant effect (α ≤ 0.01) were included in the second stage. Secondly, the whole SNP data set was also analyzed using the SimpleM approach for multiple testing corrections (Gao et al., 2008). These results are presented in Fig. S2.

The LDheatmap function implemented in the R package LDheatmap was used to calculate and plot pairwise LD values between all genotyped SNPs, using allelic correlations (r2), Shin et al. (2006).


SNP selection, wood chemistry and ultrastructure traits

The design, composition and performance of the 34K SNP array used in this study, containing 34 131 SNPs in 3543 genes, is detailed in Geraldes et al. (2013). Briefly, 99.3% of the SNPs were localized to the 19 P. trichocarpa linkage groups that correspond to the 19 pairs of chromosomes. The median distance between SNPs within the 3543 genes was 487 bp, and on average there were 9.5 SNPs per gene region (the transcribed region plus 2 kb of flanking sequence on either side). We used this array to successfully genotype an association population of 334 unrelated individuals collected from wild populations (Geraldes et al., 2013; Porth et al., 2013), representing a geographic range of 44.0–58.6° latitude N. After SNP filtering (see Porth et al., 2013), 29 233 SNPs were available for further analysis.

The population of 334 trees was grown in a common garden in Surrey, BC (49.18°N, 122.85°W), and phenotyped for 17 wood chemistry and ultrastructure traits representing key characteristics affecting pulping, solid wood, and biofuel production (Porth et al., 2013).

Evaluation of phenotype–genotype association approaches

Population and familial stratification are known to affect association studies causing spurious results (Price et al., 2006; Astle & Balding, 2009; Sillanpaa, 2011). We attempted to overcome these effects. Familial structure is a priori unlikely to be important in our study population as these are natural accessions of an outbred species, and accessions with evidence of sibship in the association population were eliminated from the analysis (see the 'Materials and Methods'). However, to correct the association model for confounding effects from potential hidden population structure (Patterson et al., 2006) and/or familial structures (Loiselle et al., 1995), we used a subset of SNPs with complete information (i.e. no missing data) and meeting the HWE (N = 9342). Analysis of population structure (using GENELAND; Guillot et al., 2005) and familial structure (Loiselle et al., 1995) indicated that neither had a strong systematic effect (Fig. S1). The population structure analysis discovered two populations with small FST (0.0121) and, likewise, the coefficients in the kinship matrix showed only small variances. While correction for familial structure (K model) is considered to be an appropriate solution across a wide range of population settings (e.g. Astle & Balding, 2009), this model was not selected in our case (Table S2).

The use of PCA in genome-wide association studies (GWAS) can account for population stratification and LD (Patterson et al., 2006; Price et al., 2006, 2010). Such long-range LD between distant loci can inflate single locus test statistics (quantitative trait nucleotide effects, R2), whether the result of selection, stratification or genotyping errors (Thomas et al., 2011). As wood traits do not strictly follow the north–south cline (Porth et al., 2013), the use of PCA to control for cryptic genetic background is deemed appropriate to detect genetic associations resulting from phenotypic QTLs in the population. We identified strong LD between SNPs along linkage groups (the extent of LD between the top 20 SNPs in the simple model for galactose is shown in Fig. S3) and thus we fitted LD across the whole genome. To account for the cryptic genetic background, we employed backward-stepwise regression (i.e. PCA-based model that selects PCs via BIC), and PCs with eigenvalues explaining 90% of the total variation in genomic data were included in the analysis (Pant et al., 2010). Examination of qq-plots comparing alternative methods applied to our data showed that, for most traits, the PCA-BIC method outperformed the other methods (Fig. S2). When we compared R2 values generated by two PCA-based alternative methods, we found that the backward-stepwise BIC-based PC selection approach effectively corrected for the impact of LD on the SNP effects (Fig. S2). The lack of significant associations in the simple (no adjustment) model for most traits, however, indicates lower analysis power, which could be caused by an unfavorable balance between the number of individuals and the number of SNPs or by the genetic nature of the studied population. However, it is most likely that the power of the analysis is impacted most by the modest size of the association population (Fig. S4).

For determining statistically significant SNP–wood phenotype associations, we first used a two-stage approach in which the initial step, SNP preselection, involved the use of a log-likelihood ratio test for each SNP–trait combination. SNPs with significant effect (α ≤ 0.01) were included in the second stage. Including only a set of meaningful SNPs in the subsequent analysis greatly reduces the effect of multiple testing corrections when testing a large initial number of SNPs for associations (Aulchenko et al., 2007; Macciotta et al., 2009; Pant et al., 2010). Secondly, for comparison, the whole SNP data set was analyzed using a modified Bonferroni correction that takes LD into account and is therefore based on the effective number of tests (Gao et al., 2008). In summary, the power of the association analysis was increased when we preselected SNPs using a log-likelihood ratio test to include only SNPs with potential associations with the studied traits (Aulchenko et al., 2007; Macciotta et al., 2009; Pant et al., 2010), while the backward-stepwise BIC-based PC selection approach best corrected for the impact of LD on SNP effects.

Phenotype–genotype associations

The number of SNPs preselected by the log-likelihood ratio test at α = 0.01 was trait-specific and encompassed on average 181 SNPs per trait, but ranged between 71 and 662 SNPs for holocellulose and soluble lignin content, respectively. Employing the PCA-BIC/SNP preselection pipeline described earlier, we identified 141 SNP–trait associations that were significant at α ≤ 0.05 and are distributed among the 19 Populus chromosomes (Table 1, Fig. 1). Our analysis identified SNP associations with 16 of the 17 secondary cell wall and wood ultrastructure traits examined, failing to find significant associations for galactose content. The percentage of phenotypic trait variance attributed to an individual SNP ranged from 2.9 to 6.9%, based on R2 values (Tables 1,S3). We also fitted a model where all significantly associated SNPs were included as explanatory variables for the respective traits to estimate the cumulative phenotypic variance (cumulative R2) explained by the genetic effects of all SNPs associated with a trait, calculated according to Ingvarsson et al. (2008). The cumulative phenotypic variance explained by all significant SNPs ranged between 5 and 26% (Table 1). While estimates roughly reflect the number of SNP associations for the traits, the portion of the total phenotypic variance explained by all significant SNPs is particularly dependent on the magnitudes of the allelic effects (Table 1) and also on the existing LD between these SNPs. The majority of associations were found in markers with small minor allele frequency (0.05 < MAF < 0.2; Fig. 2a). While no correlation between MAF and R2 was detected (Fig. 2b), large variances in allelic effects were found for low-MAF markers (Fig. 2c) related to the variance explained by an SNP when only additive gene action is present (Falconer, 1981).

Table 1. Summary of single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP)–trait associations and SNP allele effects from a genome-wide association analysis of Populus trichocarpa
Trait no.Traita N b Phenotypic variance (%)cGenetic variance (%)dPhenotypic variance (cumulative) (%)eSNP allele effectf
  1. a

    Trait definitions: alpha cellulose, percentage of alpha cellulose in extract-free dry wood; arabinose, percentage of arabinose sugar in extract-free dry wood; average wood density, wood density averaged from pith to bark (in kg m−3); crystallinity, percentage of cell wall crystallinity; fiber LW, cellulose fiber length weighted (in mm); galactose, percentage of galactose sugar in extract-free dry wood; glucose, percentage of glucose sugar in extract-free dry wood; hemicellulose, percentage of hemicelluloses in extract-free dry wood; holocellulose, percentage of holocellulose in extract-free dry wood; insoluble lignin, percentage of Klason lignin in extract-free dry wood; mannose, percentage of mannose sugar in extract-free dry wood; MFA1, microfibril angle measured at recent growth ring (in degree); MFA2, microfibril angle measured at first growth ring (in degrees); soluble lignin, percentage of acid soluble lignin in extract-free dry wood; syringyl lignin, percentage of syringyl monomers in extract-free dry wood; total lignin, percentage of total lignin in extract-free dry wood; xylose, percentage of xylose sugar in extract-free dry wood.

  2. b

    Number of significant associations at a given alpha level (α  0.05).

  3. c

    Range of percentage trait variance explained by genetic effects of associated SNPs (output from TASSEL).

  4. d

    Range of percentage heritable trait variance explained by genetic effects of associated SNPs; genetic variance is calculated on the basis of previously determined heritability estimates (Porth et al., 2013).

  5. e

    Phenotypic variance (cumulative R2) explained by the genetic effects of all associated SNPs calculated according to Ingvarsson et al. (2008) using the GLM procedure.

  6. f

    Number of SNPs in each of four classes: D, dominant (heterozygote similar to one homozygote); A, additive allele action (heterozygote intermediate); U/OD, under- or overdominant (heterozygote outside the range of the homozygotes); No H2, one homozygous genotype class was missing, thus no gene mode was estimated; estimation of mode of gene action according to Wegrzyn et al. (2010).

1Alpha cellulose123.1–4.07.5–9.68.60462
3Average wood density143.4–6.56.1–11.622.24541
5Fiber LW113.6–5.115.0–21.316.53440
10Insoluble lignin84.4–5.36.7–8.17.37010
14Soluble lignin34.1–5.84.2–6.07.70120
15Syringyl lignin124.0–5.310.3–13.726.26330
16Total lignin63.9–6.96.0–10.67.93120
 Total141   4731585
Figure 1.

Genome-wide depiction of significant single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP)–trait associations in Populus trichocarpa for 16 phenotypes. The locations of 141 associations significant at α ≤ 0.05 along chromosomes 1–19 of the P. trichocarpa genome are shown. Open circles, associations with cell wall sugars (arabinose, glucose, mannose, and xylose); open squares, associations with lignin (insoluble, soluble, syringyl, and total lignin); open triangles, associations with polysaccharides (alpha cellulose, hemicelluloses, and holocellulose); and black diamonds, associations with ultrastructure (average density, crystallinity, fiber length, MFA1, and MFA2) and individual trait label (number) according to order in Table 1. SNP density of the 34K SNP genotyping array in 0.5 Mbp windows across the genome follows the color scheme at the bottom right of the figure.

Figure 2.

The effect of minor allele frequency (MAF) on the genetic and the allelic effects in the significant single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP)–trait associations in Populus trichocarpa. (a) Number of significant SNP associations vs MAF; (b) R2 vs MAF; (c) additive genetic effect vs MAF.

We previously determined the narrow-sense heritability (h2) for all 16 wood traits associated with SNP variants, based on the realized kinship between all individuals in the field trial (Porth et al., 2013). Most traits showed moderate to high heritability (h2 between 0.4 and 0.7). Knowing both the genetic effects of SNPs associated with a phenotypic trait and h2 of that individual trait allows the total genetic variance explained by the associated SNPs to be determined (Gonzalez-Martinez et al., 2007). Thus, we were able to partition the genetic variance explained by each significant SNP (Table 1).

We detected from two (xylose content) to 15 (holocellulose content) SNP associations for 16 traits (Table 1). The allelic mode of gene action found for these polymorphisms included additive, dominance, overdominance and underdominance effects (Table 1). The most common modes of allelic effects were dominance and over/underdominance. The majority of the 141 SNPs with significant associations were located in noncoding regions (80%), while 28 SNPs were found within coding regions, of which half created nonsynonymous polymorphisms. However, many of the SNPs in noncoding regions are expected to be in LD with coding-region SNPs based on the haplotype tagging strategy employed in SNP selection for the array.

Wood ultrastructural traits yielded, on average, more significant associations per trait than wood chemical traits (Table 1). For several industrially important cell wall traits (e.g. glucose content, fiber length, cell wall crystallinity), single SNPs (Table 2) explained a relatively large portion of the variation. For example, SNP scaffold_11_18127986 within POPTR_0011s16200 (FAD-binding domain-containing protein gene), associated with total lignin, had the highest R2 value in the data set (6.9%). The largest values for SNP effects on glucose and syringyl lignin content were 5.7% (POPTR_0018s11290, PtiCESA7-B) and 5.3% (POPTR_0018s12720, ARF-GAP domain 11 gene), respectively. We identified 21 genes with more than one SNP significantly associated with variation in the same trait (12 traits total; Tables S3, S4). This is illustrated by the allelic effects of 14 significant wood density SNP associations in Fig. 3. For SNPs that are in high linkage, phenotypic effects showed similar patterns (Fig. 3), indicating haplotype blocks that underlie variation in the identified traits. Therefore, it is impossible to determine if one or all have a functional effect.

Table 2. Single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) with the largest effect on phenotypic variance (R2) in Populus trichocarpa
TraitSNP position R 2 SNP location, featureGene modelBest Arabidopsis hitAnnotated function
  1. CDS, coding sequence; NS, nonsynonymous substitution; S, synonymous substitution.

Total ligninscaffold_11_181279860.069Upstream, intergenicPOPTR_0011s16200AT1G30760FAD-binding domain-containing protein
Average wood densityscaffold_3_87234720.065IntronPOPTR_0003s07130AT1G53730STRUBBELIG-RECEPTOR FAMILY 6 (SRF6)
Average wood densityscaffold_3_87242030.065IntronPOPTR_0003s07130AT1G53730STRUBBELIG-RECEPTOR FAMILY 6 (SRF6)
Holocellulosescaffold_1_90884500.059Upstream, intergenicPOPTR_0001s11720AT1G02130ARABIDOPSIS RAS 5 (ARA-5)
Soluble ligninscaffold_1_30442690.058Upstream, intergenicPOPTR_0001s03760AT1G55570SKU5 Similar 12 (sks12)
Glucosescaffold_18_120973630.057CDS, SPOPTR_0018s11290AT5G17420PtiCESA7-B IRX3 (IRREGULAR XYLEM 3)
Mannosescaffold_11_184757920.056IntronPOPTR_0011s16690AT1G30580GTP binding
Average wood densityscaffold_9_82535260.056Downstream, intergenicPOPTR_0009s09250AT3G19580ARABIDOPSIS ZINC-FINGER PROTEIN 2 (AZF2)
Mannosescaffold_7_139096500.054Downstream, intergenicPOPTR_0007s13910AT2G18060VASCULAR RELATED NAC-DOMAIN PROTEIN 1 (VND1)
Mannosescaffold_1_83677600.054Downstream, intergenicPOPTR_0001s10750AT1G64480CALCINEURIN B-LIKE PROTEIN 8 (CBL8)
MFA2scaffold_19_102266940.054IntronPOPTR_0019s08690No Arabidopsis blast hit 
Insoluble ligninscaffold_2_40710490.053IntronPOPTR_0002s06080AT2G42880ATMPK20
Insoluble ligninscaffold_2_40712550.053IntronPOPTR_0002s06080AT2G42880ATMPK20
Insoluble ligninscaffold_2_40741120.053IntronPOPTR_0002s06080AT2G42880ATMPK20
Syringyl ligninscaffold_18_132383860.053CDS, NSPOPTR_0018s12720AT3G07490ARF-GAP domain 11 (AGD11)
Fiber LWscaffold_9_13807170.051CDS, NSPOPTR_0009s01200AT2G28110FRAGILE FIBER 8 (FRA8)
Insoluble ligninscaffold_17_10394690.051IntronPOPTR_0017s01510AT5G37478Unknown protein
Insoluble ligninscaffold_2_23231180.051Downstream, intergenicPOPTR_0002s03730AT4G28540CASEIN KINASE I-LIKE 6 (CKL6)
Average wood densityscaffold_9_56848570.050IntronPOPTR_0009s05620AT3G21070NAD KINASE 1 (NADK1)
Total ligninscaffold_11_181280340.049Upstream, intergenicPOPTR_0011s16200AT1G30760FAD-binding domain-containing protein
Crystallinityscaffold_11_57265240.049IntronPOPTR_0011s05740AT4G28500ARABIDOPSIS NAC DOMAIN CONTAINING PROTEIN 73 (ANAC073)
Fiber LWscaffold_9_13792640.049Downstream, intergenicPOPTR_0009s01200AT2G28110FRAGILE FIBER 8 (FRA8)
Mannosescaffold_15_80338130.049Upstream, intergenicPOPTR_0015s06980AT5G60970TEOSINTE BRANCHED1, CYCLOIDEA AND PCF TRANSCRIPTION FACTOR 5 (TCP5)
Insoluble ligninscaffold_5_53537660.049CDS, SPOPTR_0005s07810AT4G39840Unknown protein
Mannosescaffold_14_46550350.049Upstream, intergenicPOPTR_0014s06150AT1G02030Zinc finger (C2H2 type) family protein
Syringyl ligninscaffold_6_63903110.049Upstream, intergenicPOPTR_0006s08720AT5G02230Haloacid dehalogenase-like hydrolase family protein
Figure 3.

Boxplot diagrams depicting the genetic effects of all single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) with significant associations to average wood density in Populus trichocarpa. The box in each box plot shows the lower quartile, and the median and upper quartile values, and the whiskers show the range of the phenotypic variation in the population; red dashed-lined frames indicate SNPs in linkage disequilibrium (LD). Wood density units in are in kg m−3. PRR1 (PINORESINOL REDUCTASE 1), scaffold_1_1152637, scaffold_1_1152731 and scaffold_1_1152917; SRF6 (STRUBBELIG-RECEPTOR FAMILY 6), scaffold_3_8723472, scaffold_3_8724203; SRF3 (STRUBBELIG-RECEPTOR FAMILY 3), scaffold_4_2590927; NADK1 (NAD KINASE 1), scaffold_9_5684857; AZF2 (ARABIDOPSIS ZINC-FINGER PROTEIN 2), scaffold_9_8253526; PSEUDO-RESPONSE REGULATOR 5, scaffold_12_296493, scaffold_12_297721, scaffold_12_298292 and scaffold_12_298904; unknown protein, scaffold_14_10610488; unknown protein, scaffold_19_3739698.

Figure 4.

FRA8 gene structure, linkage of genotyped single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), and genetic effects of five SNPs associated with fiber length (Fiber Lw) in Populus trichocarpa. Gene structure is represented schematically as exon (boxes)-intron (lines)-UTR (dots) patterns; the solid lines connect to the five associations (α ≤ 0.05, explaining 4.4–5.1% of fiber length (mm) variation) for which boxplot diagrams depict their genetic effects. Dashed lines indicate other genotyped SNPs with no significant association with fiber length. The box in each box plot shows the lower quartile, and the median and upper quartile values, and the whiskers show the range of the phenotypic variation in the population (units in mm). The linkage disequilibrium (LD) structure (r2) is color-coded to show the extent of LD across the genotyped SNPs with the candidate gene.

Although the data do not indicate which SNPs may be causal, it is interesting to note that some of these SNPs represent amino acid replacement (nonsynonymous) polymorphisms, such as the SNPs in FRA8 (the Populus ortholog of Arabidopsis FRAGILE FIBER 8), which is associated with fiber length (g. 4), and CRLK42 (POPTR_0012s08890 annotated as CYSTEINE-RICH RLK RECEPTOR-LIKE PROTEIN KINASE 42), associated with MFA1 (Fig. S5).

The significant trait-associated SNPs were derived from multiple alternate functional and expression categories (see the FamilyPath column in Table S3). For example, 21 SNPs found within genes encoding 18 transcription factors were associated with 10 different traits, such as alpha cellulose or mannose content (Tables S5,S3, Fig. S6), and 17 SNPs found within 11 genes related to cell wall metabolism were identified for eight different traits (Tables S3, S6). Some of these genes encode structural proteins (e.g. arabinogalactan protein), while others function in processes such as monosaccharide activation and interconversion (nucleotide–sugar interconversion enzyme activity), polysaccharide synthesis (cellulose and hemicellulose synthesis), cell wall reassembly (glycoside hydrolase) or glycosyl transferase activities. A large set of associations (60 SNPs within 39 genes associated with 15 different traits) were identified in genes included in the 34K SNP genotyping array based on transcript profiling or expression patterns rather than protein functional information (Geraldes et al., 2013; Table S7).

Genetic associations with phenotypic variation in cell wall carbohydrate content

We identified 48 SNPs associated with cell wall carbohydrate traits (Table 1). Among these, the synonymous SNP, scaffold_18_12097363, located within PtiCESA7-B, a P. trichocarpa ortholog (POPTR_0018s11290) of Arabidopsis CESA7 (IRREGULAR XYLEM 3) encoding a cellulose synthase subunit implicated in cellulose biosynthesis in the secondary cell wall (M. Kumar et al., 2009), showed genetic association with glucose content. The genetic effect of this SNP explained 5.7% of the total phenotypic variance and 12.5% of the total genetic variance when considering heritability. This polymorphism showed an underdominance effect where the heterozygous genotype had lower glucose content than either of the two homozygous genotypes (Fig. 5a).

In other examples, two SNPs associated with relative xylose content (Fig. 5b): one intronic SNP, scaffold_10_2623857 within POPTR_0010s02280 (annotated as similar to FASS, protein phosphatase type 2B regulator), explained 4.1% of the total phenotypic variance, and one SNP, scaffold_15_912654, located within the 5′ UTR flanking region of POPTR_0015s01480 (annotated as similar to IQ-domain 21; IQD21 calmodulin-binding protein), explained 4.4% of the total phenotypic variance for this trait. Based on previous results on xylose trait heritability in this population (Porth et al., 2013), these two SNPs account for 6.0–6.4% of the total genetic variance in xylose content (Table 1). Examples of associations with relative holocellulose content (the combination of both alpha cellulose and total hemicelluloses) are two SNPs within POPTR_0001s11720, which encodes a Rab GTPase similar to the Arabidopsis ARA-5 (Figs S7, S8).

Figure 5.

Boxplot diagrams depicting the genetic effects of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) with significant associations to glucose, xylose, and insoluble lignin content in Populus trichocarpa. (a) Boxplot diagram depicting the genetic effect of an SNP detected in PtiCESA7-B with a significant association to relative glucose content (percentage in extract-free dry wood); (b) Boxplot diagrams depicting the genetic effects of two SNPs in FASS1 (scaffold_10_2623857) and IQD21 (scaffold_15_912654) with significant associations to xylose content (percentage in extract-free dry wood); (c) Boxplot diagram depicting the genetic effect of an SNP detected within PttMAP20 with a significant association to insoluble lignin content (percentage in extract-free dry wood). The box in the box plot shows the lower quartile, and the median and upper quartile values, and the whiskers show the range of the phenotypic variation in the population.

Finally, four SNPs within three different intronic regions of POPTR_0018s13970 (encoding an ENTH domain protein) were associated with alpha cellulose content. Although separated by up to 3 kb, all four SNPs were in complete LD (Fig. S9). Summaries of SNP associations (boxplots) with variation in individual cell wall monomeric sugars are presented in Fig. S10.

Genetic associations with phenotypic variation in lignin content

We identified 48 SNPs associated with lignin traits (Table 1). The boxplots for all lignin traits including the summaries of significant SNP associations are shown in Fig. S11. The SNP scaffold_11_18127986 in POPTR_0011s16200 (annotated as FAD-binding domain-containing protein) is associated with variation in insoluble lignin content as well as the amount of total lignin (Fig. 6), traits that are highly correlated (Porth et al., 2013). A second SNP in the 5′-upstream region of the gene and in linkage showed significant association with total lignin only, and exhibited a similar dominance allelic affect. Another example of dominance for associations with insoluble lignin involved three intronic SNPs within POPTR_0002s06080 (Populus MAP KINASE20-2; PtMPK20-2; Fig. S12).

Figure 6.

Structure of the FAD-binding domain-containing protein gene (POPTR_0011s16200), linkage of genotyped single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and genetic effects of SNPs associated with insoluble lignin and total lignin content in Populus trichocarpa. Gene structure is represented schematically as exon (boxes)-intron (lines)-UTR (dots) patterns; the solid lines connect to the two associations (α ≤ 0.05) explaining 4.9–6.9% of relative total lignin content (percentage in extract-free dry wood) and the SNP scaffold_11_18127986, which was also significantly associated with insoluble lignin content (percentage in extract-free dry wood); dashed lines indicate other genotyped SNPs with no significant association with insoluble or total lignin content. The box in each box plot shows the lower quartile, and the median and upper quartile values, and the whiskers show the range of the phenotypic variation in the population (units in mm).

An intronic SNP at position scaffold_17_1039469 within POPTR_0017s01510 (PttMAP20) encoding a microtubule binding protein whose expression is strongly correlated with secondary wall formation in Populus (Rajangam et al., 2008) was associated (R2 = 5.1%) with insoluble lignin (Fig. 5c). The mode of the allelic gene action is dominant, with T as the dominant allele (lower insoluble lignin content). The genetic variance for insoluble lignin that was explained by this SNP amounted to 7.8%. A final example of a lignin trait-associated polymorphism is SNP scaffold_14_9134462 within POPTR_0014s12380, whose closest Arabidopsis homologue is the AUD1 gene encoding UDP-glucuronate decarboxylase involved in xylose metabolism. This SNP explained < 4% of the total genetic variance in soluble lignin with an estimated over/underdominance effect (Fig. S13).

Genetic associations with wood ultrastructure variation

We also determined variation in five wood ultrastructure traits (Table 1, Figs 1, S14). The individually associated SNPs explained a relatively high portion of the genetic variance of these traits. The genome-wide distribution of SNP associations with fiber length is shown in Fig. S15. For fiber length, five significant SNP associations, including three SNPs in coding regions (two nonsynonymous substitutions), were detected within POPTR_0009s01200 (FRA8) (Fig. 4), providing strong evidence that genetic variation at this gene underlies variation in fiber length. The strongest genetic SNP effect was found at position scaffold_9_1380717 (a synonymous allelic variant in FRA8), explaining 5.1% of the total phenotypic variance and 21% of the genetic variance in fiber length. Interestingly, while three out of these five SNPs followed an additive gene model, the remaining two followed either an over/underdominance or complete dominance model (Fig. 4).

For genetic associations with average wood density, we identified three SNPs in LD within POPTR_0001s01540 (PRR1) (Fig. S16). The SNP at position scaffold_1_1152917 in the 5′-gene region explained 4.7% of the phenotypic and 8% of the genetic variance of wood density. The majority of the identified SNP associations with wood density followed an additive gene model (Fig. 3).

Three significant SNP associations to microfibril angle (MFA1, recent growth ring) were found within POPTR_0012s08890, homologous to Arabidopsis CRLK42 (Fig. S5), including one nonsynonymous nucleotide replacement polymorphism (scaffold_12_9951792). All three SNPs were in strong LD, with an r2 of c. 0.7; however, SNP scaffold_12_9949191 exhibited the strongest association and is located within the 3′ gene region explaining 8% of the genetic variance for MFA1. All three SNPs follow the additive gene model; however, individuals homozygous for the favorable alleles for low MFA (advantageous trait) were also extremely rare in the population (Fig. S14). For cell wall crystallinity, we identified two significant SNP associations within an intronic region of POPTR_0011s05740 annotated as ANAC073 (Fig. S17).


We investigated a comprehensive array of wood traits across the natural range of P. trichocarpa to identify potential genetic markers for important wood properties for industrial applications. The present work reports the identification of a set of candidate allelic variants that could be exploited to alter cell wall traits for improved pulping, solid wood properties and cellulosic ethanol production (Fig. 1). We employed a broadly selected suite of genes to disclose SNP associations with the key industrial traits. We previously showed that the improvement of P. trichocarpa by simultaneous selection of desirable industrial wood trait combinations for feedstock improvement (e.g. high cellulose and low lignin) should be possible given the genetic correlations between these traits in our association population (Porth et al., 2013).

Genetic associations can be obscured by confounding factors (population and familial structure) for which the association models should be corrected. Tracy–Widom statistics are often used to fit population structure in association studies through the selection of the most important PCs (Patterson et al., 2006; Price et al., 2006); however, Shriner (2011) found that this approach may yield the inclusion of additional significant PCs as a result of the effect of admixture, thus adding noise and ultimately affecting the power of the analysis. Moreover, the selected PCs should be related to phenotypes so that the added noise should not affect the employed association model (Novembre & Stephens, 2008; Zhu & Yu, 2009; Peloso & Lunetta, 2011). The present analysis of population structure did not reveal strong systematic stratification (Fig. S1), which is in agreement with a previous study (Slavov et al., 2012). However, Slavov et al. (2012) suggested that the unique population structure of black cottonwood along with local LD should be considered in association genetics analyses. Therefore, we focused on fitting the genetic background, including the long-distance LD through the proper selection of PCs that truly relate to the phenotype under investigation (Pant et al., 2010). This was done using the back propagation algorithm proposed by Setakis et al. (2006).

Our results identified multiple significant associations individually explaining a small portion of the phenotypic variance. This finding is in agreement with the polygenic character of wood attributes (Gonzalez-Martinez et al., 2007). The sample size available for the present study (= 334) resulted in associations individually explaining c. 4–6% of the total phenotypic variance (Table 1). These values are higher than those reported in other studies on poplar species with similar traits (Wegrzyn et al., 2010). These discrepancies can be caused by the ‘Beavis effect’ (Allison et al., 2002; Xu, 2003), resulting in considerably inflated allelic effects for smaller sample sizes (Ingvarsson et al., 2008). In principle, association genetics needs to apply very stringent statistical thresholds. While a large portion of the genetic variation has to be captured for plant breeding, the high degree of statistical significance expected in association studies may not be appropriate in the application phase (tree breeding). While we note here that, generally, the power analysis is not connected to the multiple testing correction (Teyssèdre et al., 2012), our analysis (Fig. S4) clearly revealed that the potential limitation of population size mostly involves the ability to detect small effect QTLs when there is little LD between a SNP marker and a QTL. The majority of associations were found in markers with smaller MAF (< 0.2; Fig. 2a). However, MAF had no significant impact on R2 (Fig. 2b), suggesting that our MAF cutoff (5%) did not yield associations with artificially inflated R2 estimates at lower MAF. Furthermore, the large variances in the additive genetic effects for low-MAF markers (Fig. 2c) suggest that such polymorphisms (rarer variants) may indeed explain a substantial portion of the phenotype variation (Dickson et al., 2010; Eichler et al., 2010). We also observed that most modes of gene action were consistent with over/underdominance (58 cases). Overdominance allelic effects suggest that heterozygous individuals perform better than the respective homozygous individuals in terms of greater fitness. In a population genetics context, such individuals help to maintain the genetic variability in a population (through high polymorphism) and are likely to have a natural advantage (Slatkin & Muirhead, 1999) by the combination of both alleles (overdominant selection).

Knowledge of the genetic control for these wood traits permitted further inferences to be made about the importance of trait-associated SNPs (Porth et al., 2013). That is, additive models that combine the genetic effects from multiple SNPs were used to explain a substantial portion of the trait's heritability, such as cell wall crystallinity, MFA, syringyl lignin, total lignin, average wood density and mannose content. At the individual SNP level, the highest phenotypic variance that was accounted for by an individual allelic variant was c. 7% for total lignin, with a single SNP in POPTR_0011s16200, encoding an FAD-binding domain-containing protein (Fig. 6). Such distinct polymorphisms, as they are also associated with highly heritable traits, promise the highest potential for selective tree breeding, provided their future validation in unrelated approaches such as other genetically distinct and larger association populations. Interestingly, with one exception (the Populus CESA7-B gene), none of our 141 SNP–trait associations were in genes that were in common with those identified in a previous study in this species, which analyzed 846 SNPs in 40 candidate genes (Wegrzyn et al., 2010), suggesting our genome-wide analysis has uncovered a richer representation of the genetic architecture of wood trait variation.

Polymorphisms with high potential to improve wood properties for industrial applications

Cellulose content and properties

Alpha cellulose accounts, on average, for c. 45% of the DW of Populus wood. For the production of bioethanol from cellulosic biomass, a breeding target is to generate trees that exhibit high productivity and can accumulate higher relative amounts of cellulose. In our study, several SNP associations with cellulose and glucose content were detected. Importantly, several of these allelic variants explained a relatively high portion of the observed phenotypic variance (4–6%) and were located within Populus genes that are strong candidates for involvement in secondary cell wall formation based on known functions and/or expression patterns (e.g. ARA-5, (Persson et al., 2005); ATOPT3, (Ko & Han, 2004); ENTH domain protein; Populus CESA7-B (Taylor et al., 2003); ATMPK3, (Ko & Han, 2004); REVOLUTA; Tables S4,S7). Wegrzyn et al. (2010) previously reported significant association of an SNP in CESA7-B (also referred to as PtCesA2.2; see M. Kumar et al., 2009), with variation in C6 sugars in the wood of a P. trichocarpa association population, yet only a small portion of the phenotypic variance (c. 1.6%) was explained by this nonsynonymous polymorphism. The synonymous SNP identified in our study explained almost 6% of the phenotypic variance in glucose content (Fig. 5a), consistent with the central role played by CESA7, together with CESA4 and CESA8, as subunits of the CESA complex required for proper secondary cell wall cellulose synthesis (M. Kumar et al., 2009). Populus genotypes with high glucose content homozygous for the favorable allele (G) were rare in the population we sampled (Fig. 5a), suggesting a recent mutation in the population, still at low frequency, or alternatively, a possible deleterious fitness effect in nature. However, no negative effect on growth rate and biomass accumulation was observed in these individuals in an association trial (A. D. McKown et al., unpublished), suggesting a potential for deployment in managed stands.

We also detected multiple SNP associations with variation in cell wall crystallinity and fiber morphology. It has been widely acknowledged that cell wall crystallinity impacts enzymatic saccharification of the polysaccharides (Mansfield et al., 1999; Chang & Holtzapple, 2000; Mosier et al., 2005; R. Kumar et al., 2009). Our study identified SNPs that explained c. 10–12% of the total genetic variance in cell wall crystallinity, which has not, to our knowledge, been investigated in any previous association studies. We identified, among others, associations between crystallinity and allelic variants of the NAC domain transcription factor SND2/ANAC073 (Fig. S17) and the fasciclin-like arabinogalactan protein gene FLA7 (Fig. S18). In Arabidopsis, SND2 is a direct target of SND1 that activates the developmental program of secondary cell wall formation. When overexpressed in Arabidopsis, SND2 led to a significant increase in cell wall thickness of both the interfascicular and the xylem fibers, while RNAi-suppressed SND2 plants showed the opposite phenotype (Zhong et al., 2008). Both SND2 and the Eucalyptus SND2 ortholog appear to play a central role in the secondary cell wall transcriptional networks, with a key role in regulating the expression of cellulose and hemicellulose biosynthetic genes (Hussey et al., 2011), but the mechanism by which allelic variation in SND2 could affect cellulose crystallinity is not clear.

An SNP downstream of the coding region of the FLA7 gene accounted for c. 4.1% of the phenotypic variance in cell wall crystallinity. FLA7 belongs to clade A of the FLA multigene family (Fig. S18). FLA11 and FLA12, which belong to a different phylogenetic subclade, are well studied in both Arabidopsis and Eucalyptus and have proposed roles in the biomechanics of the stem, which is associated with their function in cellulose deposition (MacMillan et al., 2010). By contrast, the exact function of FLA7 in Arabidopsis or in wood formation is currently unknown. However, a study in Populus showed that FLA7 is specifically expressed in tension wood (Lafarguette et al., 2004). Tension wood produces gelatinous cell wall fibers with unusual fiber properties and highly crystalline cellulose, and thus altered FLA7 expression could affect cell wall crystallinity, suggesting potential avenues to manipulate this cellulose property.

We found significant genetic associations of multiple SNPs (including two nonsynonymous nucleotide substitutions; Fig. 4) within the Populus FRA8 gene, which encodes a glycosyl transferase involved in xylan biosynthesis (Zhong et al., 2005). A larger amount of the heritable phenotypic variance for fiber length (5.1%) was explained by the effect of the single nonsynonymous SNP scaffold_9_1380717 in FRA8. The Arabidopsis fra8 ‘fragile fiber’ mutant exhibits decreased stem strength and it is known that variation in stem tensile strength is associated with variation in fiber dimensions, such as cell wall thickness and fiber length. Populus FRA8 represents an interesting candidate for further study to examine its role in fiber development and elongation.

Solid wood properties

Previous use of association genetics to dissect complex wood quality traits such as wood density and MFA in forest trees has relied on relatively small numbers of SNPs in candidate genes focusing on those directly involved in secondary cell wall biosynthesis (Dillon et al., 2010). Using a broader, genome-wide approach, we identified three SNPs within a Populus ortholog of CYSTEINE-RICH RLK RECEPTOR-LIKE PROTEIN KINASE 42 (CRLK42), a cell wall-associated kinase (WAK) that individually accounted for c. 8% of the total genetic variance in MFA (at the most recent growth ring; Fig. S5). WAKs bind cell-wall-carbohydrate polymers (such as pectins) via extracellular binding domains and appear to modulate cell wall biosynthesis in response to environmental stimuli (Steinwand & Kieber, 2010), suggesting a possible role in modulating fiber wall properties. SNPs in the Populus orthologs of STRUBBELIG-RECEPTOR FAMILY genes SRF3 and SRF6 were also associated with wood density, with SRF6 SNPs accounting for over 6% of observed phenotypic variance in this trait. The SRF family of receptor-like kinases in Arabidopsis are of largely unknown function, but some SRF genes have been hypothesized to affect different aspects of cell wall biology, and SRF3 expression is correlated with lignification and programmed cell death in Arabidopsis (Eyueboglu et al., 2007). Finally, three SNPs in a Populus PINORESINOL REDUCTASE 1 (PRR1) ortholog were significantly associated with wood density (Figs 3, S16, Table S7). PRR1 is strongly coexpressed with secondary cell wall CESA genes, and an Arabidopsis prr1 mutant shows defects in secondary cell wall biogenesis, including thinner cell walls and altered lignin content (Ruprecht et al., 2011). Since PRRs are implicated in the biosynthesis of lignans, phenylpropanoid compounds that may be incorporated into lignin and secondary cell walls (Nakatsubo et al., 2008), these genes provide intriguing new candidates for validation and further study as potentially important components of the genetic architecture of these complex traits.

Hemicellulose content and composition

Hemicelluloses are believed to interact with cellulose microfibrils (Gorshkova et al., 2012) and these interactions can impede the access of hydrolytic enzyme to the cellulose chains. However, these noncellulosic polysaccharides are important regulators of the assembly of secondary cell walls and can impact lignification and the orientation of cellulose microfibrils (Donaldson & Knox, 2012). Populus wood hemicelluloses are primarily xylans and, to a lesser extent, mannans. In this study, we identified SNPs in two transcription regulators associated with hemicellulose content variation that have not been previously reported to be involved in the regulation of secondary wall formation (an AP2/B3-like transcriptional factor family protein and an SUV2 homolog with putative histone lysine methyltransferase (HMTase) activity; Table S3). We also found that variation in xylose content was associated with a gene encoding a calmodulin-binding protein IQD21 that is specifically expressed in developing Populus secondary xylem (Ko et al., 2012). An association was also identified between mannose content and an SNP in a Populus homolog of the Arabidopsis FLA11 gene encoding a fasciclin-like arabinogalactan protein (Fig. S18) that is tightly coregulated with secondary cell wall CESA genes in Arabidopsis (Brown et al., 2005; Persson et al., 2005; Ma et al., 2007). Together with FLA12, FLA11 is thought to influence wood fiber properties by interacting with the hemicellulosic matrix (MacMillan et al., 2010), and fla11 and fla12 mutants possess higher mannan content (MacMillan et al., 2010). Variation in relative mannose content was also associated with an SNP in a Populus homolog of the Arabidopsis NAC domain transcription factor VASCULAR-RELATED NAC-DOMAIN1 (VND1). VND1, a homolog of VND7, is a transcriptional master regulator of xylem vessel formation and is up-regulated during xylem vessel element formation in Arabidopsis (Kubo et al., 2005).

Lignin content and composition

Wood with a higher total lignin content typically requires more energy and/or chemical input for pulping (Stewart et al., 2006). Lowering lignin content and altering its composition towards a higher syringyl-to-guaiacyl (S/G) value also minimize the requirements for feedstock pretreatment and facilitate sugar release for biofuels (Studer et al., 2011; Mansfield et al., 2012). We identified a number of associations for lignin traits with SNPs located within genes that have previously been shown to be important in secondary cell wall formation, are coexpressed with genes known to be involved in this process and/or are strongly xylem up-regulated. Examples include Populus homologs of Arabidopsis SKS12 (encoding a laccase), AUD1, MAP20, WRKY32, ATMPK20, ARF-GAP domain 11 and genes encoding an FAD-binding domain-containing protein, an amino acid permease, a dirigent family protein, and a methyladenine glycosylase family protein (Tables S7,S3). Interestingly, some lignin associations were found within genes directly or indirectly related to cellulose or xylan biosynthesis. For example, MAP20 (Rajangam et al., 2008) associated with insoluble lignin content, while UDP-D-xylose synthase/UDP-glucuronate decarboxylase AUD1 (Persson et al., 2005) associated with soluble lignin content. However, given the strong genetic interrelations between the lignin biosynthetic pathway and the cellulose and hemicellulose biosynthesis pathways (Porth et al., 2013), this result is not surprising.

In the current study, with the exception of an association within the CESA7-B gene and glucose content, we did not identify any associations between trait variation in cell wall biochemistry and polymorphisms in genes dedicated to biosynthesis of cellulose or lignin (e.g. cellulose synthase or ‘lignin toolbox’ genes; Hamberger et al., 2007). This is in strong contrast to the previously conducted candidate gene-based association genetics studies in forest trees (Eucalyptus (Thumma et al., 2009), Populus (Wegrzyn et al., 2010; Guerra et al., 2013), pine (Gonzalez-Martinez et al., 2007)), where relatively small numbers of SNPs in 30–40 candidate genes were analyzed. It appears that the phenotypic variations for the wood traits that we observed across the natural range of Ptrichocarpa are genetically controlled by polymorphisms within genes other than the commonly favored candidate genes.

Among the most important findings in our SNP association analyses is the high phenotypic variance for insoluble lignin explained by one allelic variant in MAP20 (Fig. 5c). A recent study demonstrated that MAP20 from hybrid aspen (Populus tremula × tremuloides) binds to cortical microtubules and is functionally linked with cellulose biosynthesis (Rajangam et al., 2008). Again, these findings suggest evidence for a substantial genetic interrelation of cellulose and lignin biosynthesis (Porth et al., 2013). Our study also identified a SNP within a gene encoding a FAD-binding domain-containing protein (Fig. 6) that is associated with the wood biochemistry traits insoluble lignin and total lignin content, as both traits are highly correlated (Porth et al., 2013).


The dense marker map we applied in association mapping provided a higher chance of detecting strong LD between markers and QTLs. However, it should be stated that such an increase in the marker density does not guarantee an improvement in LD-trait detection, but conversely contributes to an increased multiple testing penalization. This is a serious limitation of association studies, especially for those investigating highly complex traits. Hence, we applied SNP preselection (Pant et al., 2010), which effectively improves the power to detect small allelic effects underlying phenotypic variation (Aulchenko et al., 2007). However, the verification of small effect associations across different environments and genetic backgrounds is expected to be difficult, because of the confounding effects between the genetics and the local environments, resulting in changes in gene–gene interaction networks. This phenomenon was recognized as the context-dependent effect of QTLs (Mackay et al., 2009). A viable alternative to looking at one allelic effect at a time (association mapping) is the genetic tool of genomic selection (Grattapaglia & Resende, 2011), which fits all genome-wide allelic effects simultaneously and also predicts the performance of a population (pedigree or unstructured population) in terms of a particular complex trait. This allows for effective implementation in breeding activities.


This work was supported by the Genome British Columbia Applied Genomics Innovation Program (project 103BIO) and the Genome Canada Large-Scale Applied Research Project (project 168BIO), by funding to Q.C.B.C., C.J.D., R.D.G., J.E., Y.E-K., S.D.M. and by funding within the BioEnergy Science Center, a US DOE Bioenergy Research Facility supported by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research in the DOE Office of Science. Oak Ridge National Laboratory is managed by the University of Tennessee-Battelle LLC for the DOE.