Despite 140 million years of independent evolution, two types of coniferous trees use the same small set of 47 genes to rapidly adapt to varying climates, an international team of forestry researchers have found in a new study, published today in Science.
Using the same genes suggests Mother Nature is limited in the way she can help western Canadian lodgepole pine and interior spruce trees survive in the sometimes-harsh climates of their home range.
“Evolution is constrained in how many different ways it can solve the same problem,” said Sally Aitken, a University of British Columbia forestry professor and the study’s senior author.
When faced with drought or cold, trees decide to turn thousands of genes on or off to deal with changes in temperature and moisture. This suggests there may be multiple different ways trees in a region can adapt to local climate.
But after sequencing the DNA of 23,000 specific genes from hundreds of pine and spruce trees in B.C. and Alberta, the researchers discovered that the two tree species used DNA variation in 47 of the same genes to adapt to low or high temperatures. This, despite the trees evolving as separate species for roughly as long as humans and kangaroos.
The fact that these two distantly-related types of trees use variation within many of the same genes to brave the elements reveals some limits to successful climate adaptation, but also sheds light on ways scientists can help trees adapt quickly.
“These trees are becoming mismatched with local conditions due to climate change,” said Aitken. “Understanding their genetic basis will help us develop new methods to move trees to the right locations, so they can thrive and adapt more quickly to climate change.”
To read the full study, Convergent local adaptation to climate in distantly related conifers, click here.
Aitken’s co-authors include researchers from UBC, University of Calgary, Monash University, Northeastern University, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and the University of Alberta.
The research is part of the AdapTree Project, funded by Genome Canada, Genome BC, Genome Alberta, Alberta Innovates BioSolutions, the Forest Genetics Council of British Columbia, B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, Virginia Tech, UBC, the National Science Foundation Plant Genome Research Program, and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
To learn more about the AdapTree Project, click here.
“Many species on earth survive through frigid winters and scorching summers, but we know very little about how they accomplish this,” said Samuel Yeaman, the study’s first author and former postdoctoral fellow at UBC, now an assistant professor at the University of Calgary. “By comparing the genes that help pine and spruce adapt to their environment, we find a surprising amount of overlap in the genes they use. Nature’s cookbook has some very similar recipes.”