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THE NC STATE UNIVERSITY CHRISTMAS TREE GENETICS PROGRAM

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SAVING OUR CHRISTMAS TREES – ONE NEEDLE AT A TIME

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Dr. Justin Whitehill leads the Christmas Tree Genetics Program, at NC State University in Raleigh.  Its mission is to serve the tree breeding and Christmas tree genetic resource needs of the Christmas Tree industry in the state and nation.  He also serves as the Co-director of the Forest Biotechnology Group at the University.
Tracy Taylor is the Superintendent at the NCDA’s Upper Mountain Research Station in Laurel Springs, NC where he has been since 2006.  The main focus of this station is on supporting the tree industry to make production profitable and sustainable by improving tree quality.
Together, they work to support and help sustain the Christmas Tree industry in North Carolina.

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Tim O’Connor is Executive Director of the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA). His career spans 25 years of innovative leadership as the CEO of industry trade associations and marketing organizations. Tim received a B.S. in agriculture from Western Illinois University; a Master’s in Business Administration from the University of Illinois. and has completed the Harvard Graduate School of Business Competition and Strategy program. He has worked in food and agricultural associations, marketing and business consulting for more than 30 years.  It is estimated that those affiliated with the NCTA produce roughly three-quarters of the farm-raised Christmas trees in the United States.

Justin, It is a pleasure to talk to you again and share what you do with the many followers of the Regency Park Partnership.  NCTA represents hundreds of active member farms, 38 state and regional associations, and more than 4,000 affiliated businesses that grow and sell Christmas trees or provide related services.  Without your valuable assistance, especially in this time of climate change, I don’t know where the farm-grown Christmas Tree industry would be today.

 

Can we start by discussing an on-line article earlier this year which said that climate change is threatening our Christmas tree crops.  Can you explain in some detail how climate change is such a real threat today?

{Justin} Tim, we should begin by addressing climate change in general as this is much bigger than Christmas trees.  Climate change threatens trees and ecosystems all around the world. As temperatures continue to rise, winters are less harsh which favor the proliferation of tree pests and pathogen populations.

Trees are also threatened by invasive species from other parts of the world due to the export and import of goods. And our warmer and harsher summers mean that plants require more water. And if water is limited, especially in forest trees, eventually those plants start to become stressed.

 

Another serious threat is the increasing number of wildfires and the lengthening of the fire season. All of these things are working in concert to threaten all plant species.

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Can you tell us if we can do anything to ensure that years from now, we will still have Christmas trees as we know them today?

I need to emphasize to everyone that Christmas trees, like most other trees, are slow growing and take decades to study so that we may develop the next generation of genetically improved trees.

Did you know that fir species, such as Fraser fir, are the most popular type of Christmas tree in the world?  Fir species in general are also often viewed as global indicators of climate change. Fir thrive on some of the tallest mountain ecosystems  around the world where temperatures are generally cool and moist year-round.  The most popular Christmas tree in the US is the Fraser Fir which is native to western North Carolina and accounts for ~40% of all real trees sold annually. You might find it very interesting that Fraser fir grows best in the mountains of western NC compared to anywhere else in the world.

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Justin, as consumers, what are the impacts we have experienced due to climate change and what would be the outlook for the future if we did not have special programs and research like yours to offset these impacts?

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I think there are a lot of behind-the-scenes activities that happen across all agricultural industries daily that help ensure we don’t and won’t have to experience the cascading impacts of climate change. That’s not to say impacts aren’t happening now or haven’t happened in the past or won’t happen more quickly in the future.  

Economically significant crops like corn, soybean, loblolly pine, or sweet potatoes all have dedicated scientists and industry researchers working to safeguard these important crops, and solutions to problems are constantly in development.

What about the impact of climate change on Christmas trees in regards to consumers?

Of course, I am biased as director of the NC State Christmas tree genetics program, but I believe that without continued research and support, any crop would have a rather bleak outlook for the future.

 

Our program ensures that the NC and US Christmas tree industry continues to grow and thrive long into the future. We address challenges that come up as these relate to Christmas trees.  We are constantly looking at how we can best support the industry through research.

Is there a specific example that comes to mind that might drive home the problem of climate change as it relates to Christmas trees?

{Justin}  Tim, postharvest needle retention of Christmas trees is heavily influenced by cold weather, particularly in Fraser fir, and messiness is the #1 reason that some consumers prefer to buy fake trees.

So, if the climate is not cooling down as quickly, what that means for consumers is that the likelihood that a Fraser fir Christmas tree loses only a few or a lot of needles during the holiday season is largely determined in part by the weather. The sooner it starts to cool down in the mountains, the better it is for the needle retention of Christmas trees.

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Is there anything you are doing to offset this problem?

We have identified specific Fraser fir trees that don’t lose their needles regardless of what the weather is doing. So, through our research, we have been able to lessen the impact of climate change on the consumer which of course is very important to our growers and the continued success of the industry.

Your team is working to make trees more resilient through genetics and you are developing trees that have natural genetic resilience to drought, climate, and also some of the pests that we’re facing as well.  Can you explain what this means?

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First, I would say that when we refer to these trees as genetically improved, this means we are working to develop trees that confer benefits for consumers and growers. This is often a laborious and time-consuming process because genetic improvement of trees is very different compared to crop plants like corn or soybean. 

Also, genetic improvement refers to a process by which we select the best of the best trees from the previous generation to serve as the parents for the next generation. The plants I am talking about are not genetically modified, they are genetically improved. However, trees are like people, and can take decades to produce the next generation.  

Why is that?

Other crops have much shorter life cycles which means that the scientists that work on improving these types of crops can make significant genetic gains every year. 

But tree researchers are constrained by the natural biology of the tree. For instance, if I were to plant a Fraser fir seed today, it would normally take 25 years before that seed grows into a tree that produces its own seeds. In this scenario, conventional genetic improvement approaches for Fraser fir can take decades!

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Justin, in what ways is your research different from the more conventional approaches?

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While the genetic improvement process is still slow mainly due to the natural biology of trees, I am happy to say that our Christmas tree genetics program has made significant progress since we began our work, and has developed two separate collections of elite Fraser fir germplasm that represent the first generation of genetically improved trees. These trees were artificially selected through breeding efforts and are one generation removed from the wild trees that are found naturally throughout the southern Appalachian Mountains.

I am so glad you pointed this out to everyone. Yes, this sounds like a complicated process. Your program has been working on improving tree genetics for nearly four decades. What are some of the accomplishments you have made during that time?

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Interested readers may want to know that there are only six tiny island-like populations of Fraser fir anywhere in the world. The NC State Tree Improvement (TIP) program collected Fraser fir cones from three of these six populations in the late 1970’s. In 1994 a second collection captured genetic materials from all six populations.

{Justin}  While the genetic improvement process is still slow mainly due to the natural biology of trees, I am happy to say that our Christmas tree genetics program has made significant progress since we began our work, and has developed two separate collections of elite Fraser fir germplasm that represent the first generation of genetically improved trees. These trees were artificially selected through breeding efforts and are one generation removed from the wild trees that are found naturally throughout the southern Appalachian Mountains.

And what is the significance of these collections?

These materials were used in field tests with NC Christmas tree growers. More than 30,000 seedlings from wild stand trees were evaluated over about 12 years. Trees that showed the best genetic potential were selected and then carried through to the next round of testing. This work ultimately led to the establishment of two seed orchards which provide elite Fraser fir genetic material to NC farmers.

I assume that these seed orchards are also an important part of this process, so please tell us more.

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The first seed orchard was established in 2000 and was licensed to NC Christmas tree growers. The seed produced in that orchard provides genetically improved Christmas tree materials to the growers that manage that orchard. Christmas trees grown from this seed produce trees that grow faster and are of a higher quality.

A second seed orchard was established at the NC Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA & CS) Upper Mountain Research Station in Ashe County in 2018.  Did you know that Ashe County is the #1 Christmas tree producing county in the US?

The seeds and trees that will eventually be produced from this orchard will not only grow faster and be of even higher quality, but they will also retain ~99% of their needles after harvest. Consumers that purchase these trees won’t need to worry about cleaning up dropped needles during the holiday season.

You said that you are in the process of getting some of those genetics out to growers, what does that mean?  How do you do this?

The NCDA Upper Mountain Research Station (UMRS) is our closest partner in the effort to provide elite genetics to growers. It maintains our current generation of Fraser fir genetics and manages the most elite Fraser fir seed orchard in the world.

 

We are proud to tell everyone that we should collect enough cones from this seed orchard in 2026 to supply the NC Christmas tree industry. But to realistically get to the point of actually providing these materials to our growers requires that we complete the intervening steps in the supply chain.

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What do you mean when you said you must complete the intervening steps in the supply chain?

 {Justin}   After Fraser fir cones are collected there are several steps that need to occur before the seed can be provided to the growers.

 

  • First, all cones need to be tracked according to which trees they were collected from, so that this information can be provided to the growers to use to better plan and manage their farms. This may sound straightforward but when you have over 1,000 trees to collect from within an orchard, it can become complicated very quickly.

 

  • Next, the cones are cleaned and dried down to a particular moisture content to ensure they won’t spoil during the process and can safely be stored long-term.

 

  • Then the quality of each seed group is tested to provide an estimate as to what percentage of seed sown can be expected to germinate.

 

  • Finally, seed will be packaged and certified through the USDA. This process requires much expertise and facilities to perform the required tasks.

I understand you are also focusing on the development of aroma compounds in Fraser firs.  What is this about? 

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Aroma is the #1 trait that consumers appreciate about purchasing a real Christmas tree. Fresh cut Christmas trees are said to “smell like the holidays”. However, not much is known about the chemicals that make a tree attractive to consumers.  The aroma of a tree is known to defend against many pests while it is growing in the field. For example, there has been significant pressure from browsing deer during the cold winter months in western NC. Deer will actually eat the buds off of conifers when food becomes scarce during winter months, and Fraser fir trees may need an extra year or two to recover and grow out of that damage.

Some of our genetic improvement work will enable us to develop trees with aromas that are less preferred by deer and more appealing to consumers. So, we are working with the aroma of trees to not only enhance the consumer experience, but also help farmers deal with deer browse as well.

Micro-propagation sounds like a complicated process. Can you explain this in a way that the public can understand and appreciate?

Quite simply, micro-propagation is a way to make unlimited copies of a tree or plant in a controlled environment. Remember that it takes a long time for a Fraser fir tree to produce cones, as long as 25 years. That’s a long time! Think of it this way – one generation/cycle of genetic improvement can be one researcher’s entire career.

 

So, how do we speed up that process? Well, our best option is through micro-propagation. We start with a single seed that is placed in a dish with sugar and hormones and a gelatin-like substance called agar. If we are successful, that single seed will produce unlimited copies of itself, and then of course there are the new baby trees. We can take these baby trees at this very early stage of development and make many copies to get to growers.

I hope everyone can see that micropropagation is a way for us to speed up the genetic improvement process and develop novel individuals for the Christmas tree industry.

Some people think that purchasing an artificial tree is better for our environment.  What is your response to this? 

{Justin}  I’ve heard this perspective before and quite frankly it shocks me. I guess it goes to show how good the PR machine for the artificial tree industry has been over the years! As a biologist that’s dedicated their life to trees, I don’t understand how a person can reason that an artificial tree made using plastics combined with metals mined from the Earth, and then shipped around the world on massive ships is the sustainable and environmental choice?

 

The mental gymnastics required to convince someone that a fake tree is more sustainable than a real tree is hard for me to understand. After all, Christmas tree growers know how to grow trees! Real trees capture carbon from the atmosphere and produce oxygen as a byproduct.

Also, Christmas trees are a farm-grown crop, new seedlings are replanted to replace the trees that are harvested each year, they are not like other trees that are removed from the earth never to be replaced.

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Anything more that you want to say about this controversial issue before we move on?

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I’m also keenly aware that Christmas trees are often discarded after the holiday season which means that carbon will slowly be released back into the atmosphere. However, there are many great recycling programs offered through local municipalities that will turn Christmas trees into mulch or habitat for fish by sinking trees to lake bottoms, and even support dune restoration at beaches.

I think that if anything, our industry can do even more to support sustainability. The average Christmas tree removes 20-30 pounds of carbon from the atmosphere over a 7-10 year time frame. More research is needed to understand how we can improve these numbers.

Can we visit growers’ concerns for a moment?  What are some of the things that growers of Christmas trees here are most concerned about, and will your efforts help alleviate their concerns?  

Yes, we certainly look at things from their perspective as well.

 
The biggest concern that growers have at the moment is loss of Christmas trees in the field due to a root disease called Phytophthora root rot. This is caused by a fungal-like organism that is more closely related to brown algae than it is to fungi. This root rot disease tends to thrive in water which is how it often spreads

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Unfortunately, Fraser fir has no natural resistance to this disease and so if a tree comes in contact with this pathogen, it’s only a matter of time before it dies. We are very focused on understanding how some fir species are able to resist infection by this pathogen. We are also looking at the mechanisms other species use to fend off the disease, and other solutions as well including the use of micropropagation techniques.

I am confident that your lab and research will soon solve this issue as well. The Fraser fir, which is native to North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains, represents over 98% of all Christmas tree species grown in North Carolina. Are there specific threats that this species faces compared to other types of trees in North Carolina?

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Another excellent question.

In addition to the root rot and deer browse we previously discussed, Fraser fir Christmas trees also have to contend with several species of invasive insect pests. Unfortunately, Frasers lack genetic resistance to these threats as well.

One example would be an insect pest called the Elongate Hemlock Scale which is really more of a nuisance than tree killer. This insect is a regulatory pest which means that plant materials must be free of this organism if they are to be shipped outside of North Carolina. Like most issues that affect our Christmas trees, we are working to develop genetic solutions for this pest.

Reports indicate that the demand for real trees has increased in just a very short period of time, with the retail value of Christmas trees in the U.S. surpassing $1 billion in 2011, and now exceeding $2.5 billion. Reports also say that North Carolina supplies around 26% of the nation’s Christmas trees annually. This makes your work very important to an industry that is a very large part of your state’s agricultural economy. Can you elaborate on this for us?

Tim. as you said, this industry is very large in North Carolina.

Some estimates place the value of the Christmas tree industry within NC close to $400 million annually. These estimates don’t take into account related byproducts such as greenery production used to make wreaths and garlands.

It is interesting to note that the pandemic appears to have galvanized interest in real trees during the 2020 and 2021 holiday seasons as people had more time to spend at home and enjoy the holidays. It appears that younger families and the millennial generation as well were able to reignite family traditions and really focus on being together at home. This renewed interest in family traditions brought the real tree industry back into the spotlight. What better activity is there during the holiday season than taking the family out to a local Christmas tree farm and enjoying cocoa or warm apple cider while selecting a live Christmas tree?

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Can you explain a few of your research processes that might be interesting to our readers?  

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Sure, I’ll do my best. There are many of these, and I will try to give you an overview.
 

So, we are tasked with helping to advance the NC Christmas tree industry through the use of genetics and genetic principles.

 

Thirty to forty years ago, the challenge was developing trees that grew faster and were of a better quality. As time passed, the industry adapted to a myriad of other challenges, like insect pests, browsing deer, climate change, and probably the biggest threat being the Phytophthora root rot disease.

Our research is always trying to understand how the genetic code of Christmas trees controls various traits of interest. We look for trees with improved genetics by reading the trees’ DNA. This approach allows us to decide at an early stage of development if we should continue working with that particular tree and try to get its genetics out to growers.

And what is the benefit here?

This is a huge benefit to tree breeders as we no longer have to wait 20-30 years to see if a tree will grow faster, be resistant to disease or insects or possesses the genetic potential as it relates to any other traits we might be interested in. We can just read the trees’ DNA and within a few months know all of the answers to the above questions.

We look at the ways that trees defend themselves against insect and pathogen pests or how trees perform under adverse conditions (i.e. a changing climate). For instance, Fraser fir had never been exposed to the Phytophthora root rot disease throughout the tens of thousands of years its been growing in the mountains. Therefore it lacks any sort of genetic resistance to the disease. It’s similar to how humans had never been exposed to the Covid virus in our history and we as a species were very susceptible to infection. Plants don’t have immune systems like humans which can quickly “learn” once exposed to a new disease unfortunately though which means we need different solutions.

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So what are you doing about this?

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{Justin}  To find out how fir trees might be resistant to the Phytophthora root rot disease, we look for a fir tree that actually did co-evolve with the disease. Lucky for us, there is a tree that comes from Japan that has co-evolved with the root rot pathogen. This tree is called momi fir and it does not get infected by the root rot disease. We are studying the mechanisms this tree uses to protect itself to understand how we might use this information to develop Fraser fir that are also resistant to the disease

Justin, I also want you to cover the assistance that you receive from your students, but before we go there, this might be a good time to get the thoughts of Tracy Taylor at the Upper Mountain Research Station (UMRS), as you and he work so closely together.

 

Tracy, I know that UMRS is the highest elevation in the state and its research program reflects the diversity of agriculture in the mountains of Northwestern North Carolina. What kinds of research is done here due to the higher elevation and why?

{Tracy}   Hi Tim.
 

Well, being the highest elevation station in the state also makes us the “coldest” station in the state. Of course we conduct research on Fraser Fir Christmas trees here since the higher elevations are where they grow best.  The colder climate allows us to do cold tolerance work with other commodities such as warm season grasses, small grains, and aquatic weeds. If we can breed more cold tolerant varieties of small grains and grasses, this can lead to less crop loss for folks not only in the high country but also in other parts of the United States as well.

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Tracy, you also work with livestock. Tell us about that.

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The Blue Ridge Mountains have some of the best forages for livestock in the state and the whole research division takes advantage of that. Upper Mountain has a resident herd of registered Black Angus cattle. In addition to our resident herd, we also house animals from other stations during the summer months so the animals can enjoy the cooler temperatures and take advantage of the abundant forages. We are also planning to add a resident herd of Katahdin sheep to the station this fall.

How does the research conducted by Dr. Whitehill complement your own research?

 {Tracy}   Genetics are the driving factor in the production of Fraser Fir Christmas trees. Justin’s team has the best Fraser Fir genetics in the world, and these are housed at Upper Mountain. Genetics are the key to understanding what and how to make Fraser Fir and other species more desirable for producers as well as consumers.

Tracy, Dr. Whitehill earlier talked about the serious root disease called Phytophthora root rot, which is the biggest concern that growers have at this time. What can you add to what he said?

Unfortunately, this problem is becoming more and more widespread in Western NC. A large part of the problem involves transplants that are grown outside in the native soil. There is a risk of transferring the disease from the transplant bed to the field if the transplant bed is infected.

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And what is your station doing to reduce this risk?

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The biggest thing we do is to grow Fir plants inside a greenhouse. With greenhouse production the plants are grown in containers using sterilized media which significantly reduces the risk of Phytophthora. And we use environmental controls like lights, temperature, and water, to increase the growing rate and shorten the production time of a transplant from 5 years to 2 years.

 

We have seed trees, greenhouse and nursery space, and field space as well as the ability to conduct post-harvest research after the tree is cut.

There is also research being conducted in the form of post-harvest studies to lengthen the amount of time a Christmas tree remains fresh. Can you explain in some detail?

{Tracy}   Christmas trees are perishable items. In order for the trees to make it to the stores and retail lots in time they must be harvested weeks before Christmas. Our station focuses on finding ways to make the needles stay on the trees longer.

 

We have looked at preservatives, watering techniques, date of harvest, forced air, storage conditions, and other factors. But the most significant impact on needle retention to date is genetics, which means that some trees naturally hold on to their needles better than others.

Tracy, is there anything else you want to add before we go back to Justin?

We are in the process of constructing a new facility which will house equipment for extracting, processing and testing tree seed. We hope that in the next 5 or so years that the building is completed and the orchard will be producing a meaningful amount of seed. This should increase the tree experience for producers as well as provide a better experience for consumers of NC Premium Fraser Fir Christmas Trees.

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Tracy, thank you so much for your assistance and the valuable work being done at your research station.

Justin, what can you tell us about student participation, and are there recent graduates there who are working in related fields not directly associated with the University?

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{Justin}   My entire team is the most crucial part of the program. Students are arguably the most important component to what we are doing, but we train team members at all stages of career development including the education level. Both masters and PhD students have their own research projects to direct. PhD degrees are in forestry, but because of the broad expertise required to tackle the issues facing the Christmas tree industry, they typically have dual concentrations as well.

What about these dual concentrations?

The dual concentration, as part of their degree program, includes one or several of the following:  biotechnology, genetics, genomics, entomology, or plant pathology.

 

The great thing about an advanced degree from my lab like a masters or PhD is that it offers flexibility. In addition to graduate students, I also try to hire between 3-5 undergraduate research assistants every year to help with day to day lab tasks and I also offer these students the opportunity to pursue their own research projects.

 

Since I began at NC State, we’ve had quite a few undergraduates get jobs in the private sector in North Carolina with companies that include Syngenta, BASF, Lab Corps, and Living Carbon. I also want to point out that the folks that keep our projects moving forward and the lab functional are our lab managers and technical specialists. They provide crucial expertise to the lab which feed into all of the projects we have ongoing.

Would you like to give us an idea of the extent of your facilities, and any specialized research and testing equipment?

We are fortunate to have access to some of the most advanced facilities for plant biology research in the world. Our lab and office is in the Partners II Building on Centennial Campus at NC State University. We also have a greenhouse facility behind our building, and a larger one by the Ralston Arboretum.

I am affiliated with the NC Plant Sciences Initiative which has a brand new state of the art facility located on Centennial Campus. The state-of-the-art specialized equipment that we use to conduct our research includes equipment related to microscopy, molecular biology, biochemistry, and genomic analyses.

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Justin, thank you again for sharing this information with all of us.  I hope that all of us that purchase live Christmas trees will understand the importance of your efforts and will not take the live Christmas tree for granted.  Without the efforts of you and others with the same mission as yours, I don’t know where the live tree industry would be today and perhaps more importantly tomorrow.

Have a comment or question about this project?  Please email us at  regencyparkp@gmail.com 

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