Genes may hold the secret to forest survival
Zoom in—way in—from the macro view of B.C.’s vast forests, right down to the micro level where researchers are looking into genes that could lead to improved forest health, productivity and economic opportunities.
UBC researchers are leading four massive projects to sequence the genes of thousands of trees. With co-funding from Genome BC as a result of Genome Canada’s 2010 Large-Scale Applied Research Project Competition, the results sought are to tackle emerging challenges such as climate change, fuel shortages and declining natural resources.
Sally Aitken, a professor in the Department of Forest Sciences and University of Alberta colleague Andreas Hamann are collaborating on a project to better understand how trees adapt to local climatic conditions.
As climate change alters forest environments, trees that have adapted to the climate in one geographic area may not be well suited to thrive there in 30 or 40 years—a serious concern for an industry that plants 230 million trees in British Columbia every year.
Aitken’s team is looking for genetic variation in trees across Western Canada and comparing this to geographic information and differences in temperature, moisture and day length. Using climate change models, the team hopes to predict where trees with specific adaptations can thrive in the future.
“Ultimately we want to know where to find the seeds that are best adapted for the future climatic conditions of a region,” says Aitken.
Her team is working with the two most planted and economically important species in Western Canada: lodgepole pine and interior spruce. Because these trees are so abundant, they also play a key role in shaping forest habitat, affecting the carbon cycle, water flows, and snow melt.
In total, Aitken’s team will be sequencing and analyzing genes from more than 15,000 seedlings, mostly grown in a range of simulated climates in growth chambers in the basement of the Forest Sciences Centre.
“Research like this involves experts who have very different skill sets, knowledge and backgrounds. We don’t have enough resources to do this for every species so we’re hoping to find better ways to tackle the same questions in other trees,” she says.
Since 2001, UBC scientists have been awarded more than $65 million by Genome BC and Genome Canada for research in the forestry and bioenergy sectors.
In 2001, the “Treenomix” project became the first forestry genomics research project funded in Canada with an $11 million award from Genome BC and Genome Canada. It remains among the largest funding contracts awarded to any genomics research team in the province. Led by a team of UBC researchers including Joerg Bohlmann, Kermit Ritland, Brian Ellis, and Carl Douglas, the Treenomix project has set the groundwork for the success of forestry genomics in British Columbia.
“Forestry has been changing over the past 20 years, but the speed of change is accelerating,” said John Innes, dean of UBC’s Faculty of Forestry. “Increasingly, forest science is being recognized as a high-tech subject, using state-of-the-art equipment to unravel complex environmental problems. Genome BC has played a major part in encouraging this change by providing funding for advanced forest research.”
Genome BC In funding research, Genome BC and Genome Canada take a unique approach. Instead of issuing research grants, the organizations provide research contracts known as Collaborative Research Agreements that enable translatable research with socio-economic benefits. When a proposal is approved, Genome BC plays an integral role in the research process through milestone development and achievement, financial monitoring and facilitating follow up with potential end-users.
“Genome BC acts as a catalyst between government, academia and industry. Our goal is to translate outstanding research carried out in universities into applications for users in industry, such as the Ministry of Forests,” said Dr. Alan Winter, President & CEO of Genome BC.