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Justin Whitehill

Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources

Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist

Lead, Christmas Tree Genetics Program

Co-Director, Forest Biotech Group

College of Natural Resources

Partners Building II 2526


Dr. Whitehill leads the Christmas Tree Genetics (CTG) program, which is a research program housed in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at North Carolina State University. The CTG program’s mission is to serve the tree breeding and Christmas tree genetic resource needs of the Christmas Tree industry in the state and nationally through coordinated research, extension and outreach activities. Our research leverages the disciplines of forest genetics, forest health, genomics, and chemical ecology to support the health, productivity, and long-term sustainability of the Christmas tree industry. The CTG program is responsible for research activities that engage participation from entities with interests in the long-term success of the Christmas tree industry including the North Carolina Department of Agriculture (NCDA), NC Christmas Tree Association (NCCTA), Eastern NC Christmas Tree Growers Association (ENCCTGA), North Carolina Forest Service (NCFS) and Christmas tree growers throughout NC. Research projects relate to developing novel genomics/genetic tools to screen tree genotypes and identify elite individuals with enhanced pest/pathogen resistance, climate resilience, aroma characteristics, needle retention and added value to the industry. Major research focus will be on gene and mechanism discovery to improve Christmas trees through genomic approaches. Addressed through projects of population genetics, host-pathogen/insect interactions, genomic resources, biochemical analyses, microscopy, and the CTG Fraser fir breeding program. Dr. Whitehill also serves as the Co-director of the Forest Biotechnology Group with Dr. Jack Wang at NC State University.

Professional Affiliations

  • American Society of Plant Biologists (2017-Present)
  • Entomological Society of America (2008-Present)
  • International Society of Chemical Ecology (2009, 2011, 2014)


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Date: 06/12/23 - 6/01/27
Amount: $503,712.00
Funding Agencies: US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service

Coniferous giants are some of the most majestic, yet vulnerable tree species on Earth. Long life cycles and slow generation times limit our ability to improve and deploy genetically elite trees across the landscape. The cascading impacts of accelerated climate change threaten existing elite genetic resources as forest fires become more frequent and intense. To ensure the long-term preservation of elite germplasm and facilitate the rapid deployment of genetically improved individual genotypes requires the development of novel tools that offer solutions to these new challenges. Here we propose to initiate somatic embryogenic (SE) cultures of elite sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana) germplasm. SE is an alternative and synergistic approach used to preserve important coniferous genetic material. Ultimately, we plan to facilitate rapid deployment of improved conifers through clonal propagation of elite germplasm.

Date: 01/01/22 - 12/31/25
Amount: $811,641.00
Funding Agencies: USDA - National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)

Greenhouse, field, and AI optimization of germplasm for poplar and hemp are needed to address economic and environmental challenges to sustainable bioeconomies in the South's highland or mountain regions.

Date: 03/01/23 - 1/31/25
Amount: $20,000.00
Funding Agencies: North Carolina Biotechnology Center

Our proposal aims to develop bioluminescent Fraser fir Christmas trees using our existing somatic embryogenic elite Fraser fir lines. We plan to transform these existing Fraser fir lines with 4 genes recently identified and patented from a mushroom.

Date: 01/01/23 - 12/31/24
Amount: $176,219.00
Funding Agencies: Agricultural Marketing Service - USDA

This project will be a collaboration between the Christmas Tree Genetics Program and the Molecular Tree Breeding Lab in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at North Carolina State University. Our goal is to accelerate the genetic improvement of Fraser fir against the important regulatory pest Elongate Hemlock Scale (EHS). Fraser fir is one of North Carolina??????????????????s most important specialty crops generating annual revenues exceeding $100 million. The development of novel genomic tools and technologies will have a positive, transformative impact on the North Carolina Christmas tree industry. Our project builds on resources developed by the NCSU Christmas Tree Genetics Program in collaboration with the NCDA and NC Christmas tree growers over the past 4+ decades. We propose four major objectives in this proposal: (1) evaluation of genetic variability in Fraser fir and select Abies spp. response to Elongate Hemlock Scale infestation; (2) histological evaluation of EHS feeding on Fraser fir and Abies spp. foliage; (3) biochemical and molecular response of Abies spp. to Elongate Hemlock Scale infestation; (4) development of molecular resources to identify defense characteristics of EHS resilient Abies genotypes; and (5) synthesis and dissemination of results to NC Christmas tree stakeholders. Subsequent to the funding period, these efforts will benefit the North Carolina Christmas tree community and contribute to the genetic conservation of native Fraser fir populations in the Appalachian Mountains. We expect project deliverables will help address key knowledge gaps of pest resilience in Fraser fir and push conventional conifer breeding strategies and integration with genomic information into a new era.

Date: 10/13/22 - 7/31/24
Amount: $50,000.00
Funding Agencies: Real Christmas Tree Board

I am proposing to request funds to support a post-doc and sequencing costs associated with genome sequencing of Fraser fir.

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