Having a Christmas tree over the holidays is one of the joys and at the same time one of the hassles of the season. The tree, covered with decorations and lights, is a wondrously beautiful thing, especially with the room lights turned down. On the other hand, selecting the perfect tree outside the supermarket or at the tree farm can be a bother. If you’re not careful, you can wind up with a bedraggled, sad little thing that Charlie Brown was stuck with during his Christmas special. And, the cleanup after New Year’s Day, with the needles in the carpet, is another aggravation that you don’t see on any Hallmark special.

No wonder many opt for one of those artificial models with the built-in LED lights.

Finding the perfect Christmas tree

Considering that everything from tomatoes to rice is genetically modified to enhance healthiness and resistance to pests, it was only a matter of time before someone turned his attention to developing the perfect Christmas tree, one that is full and lush and does not shed needles. Wired has a story about projects to sequence the genome of pines and spruces and to figure out which combination of DNA will create the perfect Christmas tree.

People have been studying trees since the late 1970s, long before genetic sequencers, to ascertain which hold their lushness and needles and which will wind up bare and unappealing.

In the short term that means discovering the genetic markers that cause the perfect tree. Seedlings can be tested, and the prime Christmas trees can be separated out and grown over the several years it takes to produce the conifer you strap to the roof of your car and take home.

What about genetic modification?

Of course, the holy grail of producing the perfect Christmas tree will be an actual Genetic Modification.

We could, in theory, manipulate the genome of a scotch pine or a spruce to make the perfect Christmas tree. Then getting stuck with a half-naked tree that sheds all over the carpet will be a thing of the past.

Unfortunately, the genome of a tree is far more complicated than even that of a human being, 20 billion base pairs as opposed to 3 billion in a human being.

The sheer size and complexity of a conifer’s genetic code are hampering efforts to manipulate it to create a modified tree. Also, most of the money is going to resequencing food plants such as corn or soybeans. The bottom line is it will be a while before we can pick up a GMO Christmas tree that is full and lacks shedding every time.